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Muskego's Bethel Lutheran Church won't get city money for new sign

April 1, 2013

Muskego - It wasn't the objection raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that kept Bethel Lutheran Church from getting a $3,000 improvement grant that would have been used to erect a new sign.

Rather, it was the fact that the grant money is intended to encourage commercial development, not institutional facilities such as churches, along Janesville Road that prompted the Common Council last week to withhold those dollars.

The Muskego Community Development Authority had earlier recommended the grant be given to the church at W18426 Janesville Road. The church property stretches across seven lots along Janesville Road and the church will lose its current sign in the road widening project that is under way.

Free-thinking viewpoints

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had publicly objected, saying that would violate the ideal of separation of church and state.

In defending the grant's use, CDA member Kevin Kubacki noted that the federal government has determined that public money can go to religious organizations as long as it isn't used for religious programming and will benefit the community as a whole.

As for the intended purpose of the grant money, the CDA also saw it another way. It had reasoned that because the grant program's goal is to benefit commercial development, the church's sign, which officials agreed was attractive, would benefit businesses by improving the aesthetics of the whole neighborhood.

Freedom From Religion member Scott Weiss, Muskego, was pleased at the outcome last week.

"The council, in debate, realized the grant program was intended for business properties and made the right decision," Weiss said.

Freedom From Religion claims 1,400 Wisconsin members, including seven living in Muskego. Weiss told the council that he isn't opposed to churches but he said the Wisconsin constitution bars mixing public and religious funds. He also made the point that the program is intended for businesses.

Not a religious choice

As to the constitutionality question, Mayor Kathy Chiaverotti said the city attorney reviewed the proposal and had no problem with a grant going to a church.

Similarly, Alderman Rob Glazier, CDA chairman, said that while the CDA went back and forth on the business intent of the grant program, the religious aspect didn't play into its consideration at all.

Casting the only "yes" vote for the grant was Alderwoman Neome Schaumberg, who said it would help beautify the area.

She also noted that the church does a lot for the community, tying into a church member's earlier statements about how Bethel holds community blood drives, hosts Alcoholics Anonymous and Girl Scout meetings and serves as a dropoff spot for the New Berlin food pantry.

"I don't see why we shouldn't approve," Schaumberg said.

Indeed, church leaders had hoped that those community activities and the beautification aspect would have put the church in a better position, said its disappointed pastor, the Rev. Anne Strickert.

"We're disappointed but we understand the grant was written narrowly," Strickert said.

A couple of aldermen also were bothered that the church doesn't pay property taxes.

However, while the church building is tax-exempt, the congregation does pay taxes on the house where the pastor lives on the property, Strickert emphasized.

Financial limits

The city could widen the program beyond businesses, said Alderman Kert Harenda, but he would not favor that.

"You might as well open the checkbook," Harenda said.

The city resisted broadening the grant's purpose several months ago when the Bay Breeze condominiums asked for a grant to help replace trees that were to be devastated by the road-widening work, he noted. The CDA turned down the request because the condominiums are residential, Harenda explained.

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