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The city of Knoxville, Tennessee is working with a group called the Emerald Youth Foundation to build a “multipurpose facility and sports complex” in the Lonsdale neighborhood. It’s a serious partnership, too. $2,000,000 of taxpayer money is being used for the project, which will help pay for the land itself and a “streetscaping” of the area around it. The youth group will ultimately own the building, though.

The proposed Christian facility
The proposed Christian facility

There’s just one glaring legal problem, which the Freedom From Religion Foundation points out:

The Emerald Youth Foundation describes itself as a Christian, urban youth ministry that “desire[s] to raise up a large number of urban youth to love Jesus Christ.” The ministry’s proposed facility will include a “worship and performing arts area.” Even the facility’s sports activities will almost certainly include religious promotion; Emerald Youth Sports openly states that it mission is “to mobilize athletes to become Christian leaders.”

This is a Christian facility that will be owned by a Christian ministry for the purpose of creating new Christians… receiving public money that shouldn’t be used for promoting religion.

The partnership itself violates both the First Amendment and state law.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches,” FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Knoxville Vice Mayor Duane Grieve. “Further, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’ Promoting or otherwise endorsing the Emerald Youth Foundation’s religious project fails to respect this constitutional mandate of neutrality.

Furthermore, the Tennessee Constitution also prohibits the city from financially assisting churches. The Supreme Court of Tennessee has held that Article I, Section 3 of the state Constitution provides a “substantially stronger guaranty of religious freedoms” than the federal Establishment Clause. When the city of Knoxville conveys government property to a ministry, and contributes taxpayer funds toward a project that aims to convert area youth to Christianity, it unconstitutionally compels taxpayers to support that ministry and shows the city’s preference for the ministry’s religious message.

Why can’t the church just pay for this building on its own? They can buy the land from the city like any other group and go from there. And if the city wants this facility so badly, officials can work with a secular group to create one. You wouldn’t expect a city to hand over taxpayer money to build a church or mosque, and this is hardly any different.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero responded to FFRF’s letter with a curt dismissal that her office was doing anything wrong.

The City has received the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and we understand their concerns. The City regularly partners with faith-based organizations. We’ll continue to gather community feedback as details are worked out on this proposal from Emerald Youth Foundation. Any agreement that is finalized with EYF will be fully within the requirements for separation of church and state.

How is it possible to honor church/state separation when you’re quite literally helping build a Christian ministry? Just because the toilets aren’t filled with holy water doesn’t make the bathrooms secular.

This isn’t a difficult case. It’s irrelevant that the Emerald Youth Foundation does good work; all that matters it that the goal of the group is to spread Christianity. City officials are being irresponsible in putting themselves in the center of a legal battle they will inevitably lose.

Here’s something you won’t see in the media: One of the complainants who tipped off FFRF, Shawnee Rios, happens to be a reader of this site and — wait for it — plans to run for the Knoxville City Council. She’s also a founding member of the East Tennessee chapter of FFRF.

Earlier this week, she said in a public statement:

Lonsdale needs a community center, far more than any other area of the city. What we don’t need is a taxpayer funded church. This is a clear violation of separation of church and state by the city. All this will result in is lawsuits against the city, paid for by YOUR taxes. We need to build a community center that is welcoming for ALL religious groups.

She added in an email to me last night:

Make it an interfaith community center welcoming all religious groups and serve the entire community, not just one religious majority, or completely nonreligious. To use taxpayer funds to promote one religion sends the message to the children of other religious groups that they don’t matter.

Rios plans to make this an issue during her campaign. And unless the city backs out, you can bet this controversy won’t be fading away anytime soon.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.

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