Wrangling over wellness

Putnam City Baptist Church
Credit: Mark Hancock

Liberty Institute attorney Michael Berry sent a letter July 26 to Oklahoma City Manager James Couch and municipal counselor Kenneth Jordan outlining why the city is within its legal and constitutional rights to negotiate with Putnam City Baptist Church as a potential operating partner for one of the four planned wellness centers.

Founded in 1972, the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute specializes in defending religious liberty issues across the U.S.

Previously, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma warned the Oklahoma City Council that thorny legal issues could arise if the church were allowed to operate a center. Church officials have said repeatedly that the would-be wellness center would be run by an organization called Healthy Living Inc., a secular nonprofit with an independent board of directors.

Ryan Kiesel, Oklahoma’s ACLU executive director, had urged the council to exercise caution based on several issues, including the support or establishment of a particular religion. In part, the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Berry disputes that concern in the letter to city officials. “The relationship between Healthy Living and the church would not cause excessive entanglement between church and state,” he wrote. “The mere fact that the city endeavors to lease or purchase a portion of the church’s property does not create an Establishment Clause violation under the First Amendment.”

Legitimate arguments
City officials have said their purpose is to provide state-of-the-art senior wellness centers to promote healthy lifestyles and serve as a gathering place for seniors.

“No reasonable person would conclude that because one of the city’s proposed senior wellness center locations resides on what was formerly church property, the city is endorsing religion,” Berry wrote.

Couch said that both the ACLU and the Liberty Institute made legitimate arguments.

“We have a competent [legal] staff that will keep us out of trouble,” he said. “We know what we’re doing on this.”

Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis Jr. was less sure. During the July 30 council meeting, he voiced concerns about city and MAPS 3 staff members “reaching out” to Putnam City Baptist Church and ignoring all other churches.

“You left out the Jewish community, which has deep pockets,” Pettis said. “There was not one African-American church that was contacted, and that bothers me. The pastors in Ward 7 said they didn’t know anything about it.”

Mayor Mick Cornett told Pettis that was not the case.

“We didn’t go to any churches,” he said. “They came to us. They (Putnam City Baptist Church) responded to the RFP (request for proposals).”

Other concerna
The First Amendment argument is but one of several controversies surrounding the wellness centers.

Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid argued the centers had not been sufficiently “vetted” by the council and called for a public workshop to discuss the project and its goals. At the same time, Ward 4 Councilman Pete White complained that none of the potential facilities are located in south OKC, which is included in his ward.

The council voted 8-1 during its last meeting to begin negotiations with Healthy Living, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and Northcare Inc., a mental health facility in northwest Oklahoma City.

Jim Couch
Photo: Mark Hancock

Originally, the wellness center subcommittee recommended only the health department as a potential partner. The agency’s new campus is located in northeast OKC. Healthy Living would be located on the Putnam City Baptist Church campus in the city’s far northwest section.

Couch doubts the council will reach a unanimous decision on which groups to accept as operating partners.

“I’ve been instructed to negotiate three contracts, but I’d be surprised if we get three centers on the north side. There will be a decision, maybe 5-4, but it’ll be a decision,” he said.

The MAPS 3 plan provides four senior wellness centers at a cost of $52.3 million.

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