Atheists group sues Kansas City over support of Baptist convention

An atheists group has filed a federal lawsuit over $65,000 the City of Kansas City, Missouri, pledged in advance of the National Baptist Convention at Bartle Hall.

On Friday, American Atheists Inc. filed suit in U.S. District Court arguing that the city acted unconstitutionally when, in April, it passed an ordinance authorizing a $65,000 payment to Modest Miles Ministries from the city’s Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund.

John “Modest” Miles is the senior pastor at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church on Kansas City’s East Side and an organizer of the convention, which meets September 5–9.

The plaintiffs are American Atheists, an advocacy group based in New Jersey, and Eric Abney and Josh Stewart, two American Atheists members who live in Kansas City.

According to the lawsuit, Modest Miles Ministries requested the money to cover transportation costs during the convention. Calling the convention a “pervasively religious event,” the suit argues that paying for transportation amounts to an endorsement of the creed. “Aiding religious activities establishes support of religion,” the suit says.

The Missouri Constitution states that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.”

“American Atheists has no issue with the National Baptist Convention itself — or with religious groups in general,” Amanda Knief, the organization’s national legal and public policy director, tells The Pitch. “Our only issue here is the city granting a religious organization $65,000 of taxpayer funds in direct violation of the law.”

A week before the City Council passed the ordinance, American Atheists contracted the city and questioned the constitutionality of the arrangement. City officials seemed to realize they were on shaky ground. In a response to the atheists group, Kathy Adams, assistant city attorney, said the Neighborhood Tourism Development Fund had been told that there would be “secular events” at the National Baptist Convention. “If funding is approved the City will require Modest Miles Ministries, Inc. to provide documentation of what secular events such monies were used for reimbursement,” Adams wrote.

City spokesman Chris Hernandez told The Kansas City Star that no contract had been signed to spend the money.

American Atheists is asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri to stop the city from releasing any money to Modest Miles Ministries or the National Baptist Convention. The complaint also asks the court to declare the $65,000 grant to be unconstitutional and award legal fees.

In a news release, American Atheists says the city approved more than $300,000 in grants for previous National Baptist Conventions.

Religious conferences make up a significant piece of the city’s convention business. Bartle Hall hosts the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World next week. The Grandview-based International House of Prayer traditionally holds a conference for young adults at the convention center the last week of the year.

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