Knoxville city leaders are facing criticism and legal threats about a deal the city cut with the Emerald Youth Foundation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues the city shouldn't endorse a project funded by the Emerald Youth Foundation to build a new recreation and community center in the Lonsdale community.
An attorney representing the FFRF said the complaints are not because the Emerald Youth Foundation is a religious organization, but because of the group's project pushing religious components as a "worship and performing arts area."
The group says the Emerald Youth Foundation's statements about mixing religion with athletics at the breaks the separation of church and state called for in the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions, saying the city shouldn't donate land, contribute financially or endorse the project.
The FFRF said the project could be permissible if the Emerald Youth Foundation could guarantee the facility would not include any religious activities or promotion of religion.
A Knoxville City Council candidate has raised similar concerns.
Emerald Youth wants to build a youth athletic facility in Lonsdale. The city would give some land it has amassed through the years and it would also handle infrastructure improvements for the facility's location.
The city's participation has a value of about $2 million.
Because of questions about the deal, 10News sought to verify whether the city is at risk of breaking the law.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation describes itself as a non-profit that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
It says because Emerald Youth describes itself as a Christian youth ministry, the city is violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Establishment Clause says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
That means the government cannot support a church.
On Tuesday, 10News spoke with Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.
She said the city's law office looks closely at questions like this. She said the city *only helps the programs provided by the organization - not the church itself.
“What we don't do is invest in something that is directly church-related, but we can invest in programs that faith-based groups provide to help kids without limitations to faith, so there is a line that's been drawn by the courts, and our law department understands that," the mayor said.
Rogero said the city's law office will ensure there are no conflicts with the latest project before moving forward. Also, City Council must approve any agreement between Emerald Youth Foundation and the city.
Our verify team found at this point in the process the city is acting in keeping with the law. Given that some constitutional questions remain, we'll keep a close eye on how the process and the deal develop.
- Freedom From Religion Foundation
- Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rojero
- Read: Group opposes city funds for Emerald Youth project in Lonsdale