A judge now holds the final key to St. Joseph’s High School's $35 million dollar construction project.
Wednesday morning the city of South Bend fought in federal court on behalf of the school. The case alleges the city plans to unconstitutionally give the private school a half-acre property, formerly occupied by a Family Dollar store, for free.
It was the first time the group, “Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” officially had its voice heard on the record.
In court, ACLU staff attorney Gavin Rose told Judge Robert Miller, the city may as well have given the high school a briefcase full of cash.
"They have received $1.2 million with virtually no consideration offered on their end. That is a very substantial benefit and it's an unconstitutional one in this context,” Rose said in court.
Rose continued saying, the case law is crystal clear; city government cannot donate to religious organizations, even if the land would only be used for a football field.
South Bend city attorney Chuck Leone fired back saying, although the property would be given to the school for free, the city would reap many benefits in return, many which have monetary value.
First, the school is destined to bring neighborhood revitalization to the Near Northeast Side. In addition, the city and school have a ten-year agreement. During that time, community groups would have access to St. Joseph’s football field, track and parking lots after normal school hours.
Leone also told the judge, land transfers similar to this one have worked in the past. In 2007, the city successfully pledged $1 million and donated land to the Kroc Center. Leone reminded the judge that the facility is run by the Salvation Army, a religious organization.
"Our job is to work with everybody. We want to work with for-profit, not-for-profit, public and private entities to make these kinds of things happen,” Leone said.
In this case, the city says St. Joseph’s High School was the only group interested in developing the 26 acre site, one that would have otherwise sat dormant.
He went on to argue, the land in question would not be used for prayer, but simply athletics.
"St. Joseph's High School happens to be a Catholic institution. But if others come along, we'll work with them also,” Leone added.
"They can't donate a classroom to be used to teach theology. They can't donate a chapel to be used for prayer. They can't donate a football field when it will be used for prayer,” Rose concluded.
Looking ahead, Judge Miller could make a final decision by next Tuesday. However, he has no set deadline.
Administrators at St. Joseph’s High School say if a ruling lingers passed Sept. 15, construction schedules will have to be reconfigured on the new school. That in turn could prevent classes from starting on-time next school year.