A state Events Trust Fund reimbursed Dallas $2,048,345 for a gathering by T.D. Jakes Ministry, and the city is seeking $1,691,196 for another Jakes “MegaFest” this year.
San Antonio wants $2,667,539 for hosting a Seventh-day Adventist conference this summer.
Article 1, Section 7 of the Texas Constitution states, “No money shall be appropriated, or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary.”
“The funds can be used for nonreligious activities,” explained Chris Bryan, spokesman for the state comptroller for public accounts. “All events need cops, EMT service, barricades and other health and safety support.”
Reimbursing host cities — not the church organizations themselves — the Events Trust Fund defrays municipal costs associated with church meetings.
A state statute prohibits direct compensation for religious materials such as pamphlets, T-shirts or other sectarian paraphernalia.
State officials say excluding church groups from ETF consideration would violate First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion. Yet there is no separation of church and state when public funds are expended to support clearly religious events.
In advertising their 2015 general conference in San Antonio, the Adventists declared: “We look forward to a highly spiritual meeting as we listen to reports of how God is carrying the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 to every corner of this globe, and how the Advent movement is penetrating every region, every town, and every home with this life saving message.”
A 2014 report by the state comptroller states that in some cases cities use “funds to cover costs that primarily benefit the event organizers.” Formerly run by the comptroller’s office, the ETF program was moved to the governor’s office this year.
ETF critics say reimbursing cities for religious conferences puts the state on a slippery slope.
Under the First Amendment rationale, ETF administrators could find it difficult to withhold funding to support a Nation of Islam conference, or the Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets military funerals and campaigns based on the slogan “God Hates Fags.”
Tom Hargis, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, pointed to “a simple litmus test for determining whether the government is ‘establishing religion.’
“As I understand it, as long as the public agency that manages the fund grants equal access to entities representing other faiths, there’s not a problem,” Hargis told Watchdog.org.
The governor’s office said it is processing final receipts to determine how much to reimburse Dallas and San Antonio for their latest sectarian conclaves.
Neither T.D. Jakes nor the Seventh-day Adventists responded to Watchdog’s requests for comment.
This story has been republished with permission from the Texas bureau of Watchdog.org.
*Top image: Robert Bodolai and his group from Hungary, in town for the Seventh-day Adventist conference, commented on the beauty of the River Walk. Photo by Joe Van Wyk.