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The request last week by Shelby Christian Church that Shelby County Fiscal Court issue bonds to assist in refinancing its auditorium caught us by surprise.
We admit we never had heard of a church making such an arrangement with a governmental body, and though we were relieved to learn this has happened many times and presents no conflict, we remain a bit quizzical about its viability.
We are not condemning the church, its designated lender (Citizens Union Bank) or even the county for considering this action. If federal law allows it, then there is no reason for our citizens to ignore every possible advantage.
But we do have questions about the feasibility of such a proposed arrangement, which magistrates will consider at their meeting on Tuesday.
Does not the fact that the public is committing its authority to the church – if not exactly its dollars – create an expectation for how the facilities in question may be used?
When a government issues bonds to, say, a manufacturer or a school board, doesn’t it understand fully how that money would be spent and what activities would be carried out in those facilities? Does this opportunity present itself to every other nonprofit organization in Shelby County?
Don’t the approving individuals have to be comfortable with how the county’s dollars and influence are being used?
We ask this because Shelby Christian has inserted as one of its planks for its request the concept that its auditorium is a public facility open for public use, not strictly for religious purposes.
But we have to wonder just how “public” the church actually means.
Let there be no mistake that we support the work done by the church and believe it is a vibrant spreader of the Gospel within our community, but wouldn’t its doctrines override public intent if a potential user of the building were a group whose activities or mission did not have the approval of the church?
You can decide what those might be, but we can’t see that auditorium having the same degree of pubic access as, say Stratton Center. We think there are groups to which the church would say no, and that then presents a new definition for the term “public facility.”
All of this simply makes us wonder if public money should be entwined with limitations of any sort on the citizenry.
Magistrates on Tuesday may in fact approve these bonds, and that might be the right thing to do.
But we hope that in so doing they will consider all aspects of this question and not simply the history of the practice.