Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, told the Oklahoma City Council and municipal attorney Kenneth Jordan on July 16 all potential trouble spots in the offer by Putnam City Baptist Church “should be resolved” quickly in order to avoid litigation.
“A partnership between the city and a religious organization is not a violation of the First Amendment, but after reading through the proposal, it’s apparent several items blur the line between the separation of church and state,” Kiesel said. “It gives the impression the city is endorsing the religious mission of Putnam City Baptist Church.”
Specifically, he said the proposal suggests the wellness center would use the same hiring practices as the church.
“That could result in a lack of equal employment opportunities for people who don’t believe as they do,” he said. “We have serious concerns the proposal would not explicitly protect against discrimination or promote equal opportunities for many people, including people of different faiths or people of the same faith who might be from a different congregation.”
Kiesel also questioned if members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community would be allowed to work or volunteer at the wellness center.
“Our goal is to help the city avoid making decisions now that might invite litigation and delay the building of a wellness center for the people of Oklahoma City,” he said.
City and MAPS 3 officials intend to negotiate with the church and the Oklahoma City-County Health Department as two potential wellness center operators. Talks are scheduled to begin in early August.
Kiesel expressed other concerns, including the congregation’s intent to rent the facility on Wednesday nights and all day Sunday, and its proposed affiliation with Open Arms Clinic, a medical center with links to the Christian-based Butterfield Memorial Foundation.
In part, the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Kiesel contends the church’s proposal and the city’s willingness to negotiate demonstrate “an appearance of establishing or the endorsement of religion by a government entity.”
“It’s not just one individual part of this proposal that makes it problematic,” he said. “It’s the combination of it all. It creates an excessive entanglement between church and state that nobody wants.”
Pastor William Hulse said many of the items in the proposal are patterned after the Adult Wellness Center in Rogers, Ark. That facility closes at noon on Saturday and all day Sundays.
If operated by Putnam City Baptist Church, the wellness center would be located on its campus, 11401 N. Rockwell.
All of the potential red flags raised by the ACLU will be addressed when negotiations begin, according to assistant municipal counselor Amanda Carpenter.
“The council is very sensitive to the issues he has raised. They were discussed during (previous) interviews with Healthy Living Inc.,” she said. “We have not seen the church’s hiring practices, but the city will explore them to ensure there are equal employment opportunities.”
Healthy Living Inc. is the nonprofit group that would operate the center, if approved. The organization would be overseen by a nine-member board of directors, six of whom have no direct connections to Putnam City Baptist Church.
The proposal was submitted under the church’s name instead of Healthy Living Inc., because of time limitations, Hulse said.
“If we had had enough time, Putnam City Baptist Church would never have been mentioned other than as a leasee,” he said. “This will not be run by the church. This will be run as a secular, nonprofit organization helping the senior citizens of northwest OKC. There are tons of faith-based initiatives out there, but I promised the council it would be run as a secular entity. As far as we’re concerned, an atheist can serve as a volunteer. We are designed to be a community blessing.”
Kiesel also is concerned that Healthy Living Inc., would offer Bible study as part of the wellness center programs.
“There have to be guarantees as part of the contract that [church members and volunteers] won’t be proselytizing,” he said.
Kiesel intends to send a letter to city officials outlining the ACLU’s concerns while also inviting them to use his organization as a legal resource.
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