After months of jumping through legal hoops, the Mobile County Commission has unanimously agreed to make a public contribution to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
The proposal was approved with little fanfare during a Dec. 9 meeting, though Commissioner Connie Hudson did check to ensure the contract, which provides $4,000 to offset “camp scholarships” and “administrative costs,” met the “legal muster” necessary for taxpayer dollars to be passed to the Christian nonprofit.
Established in 1954, FCA’s mission has always been “to lead every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His church.” According to its website, the Southern Alabama FCA serves more than 100 campuses in the state’s coastal counties and as far north as Conecuh County.
As its name suggests, FCA is an overtly Christian organization, but its right to host student-led activities in public schools is protected under the Equal Access Act of 1984. However, previous court rulings have held it is unconstitutional for school employees to participate in or lead student religious clubs.
Despite that, public entities — including Mobile County — have financially supported some FCA activities in the past, though most of the organization’s operations are privately funded.
Ian Smith, a staff attorney at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it’s legal for the government to provide funding to religious entities as long as it’s not being used for religious events and activities. However, he said, making sure those dollars are spent in a secular way can be tricky.
“I don’t know about FCA specifically, but public funding going to religious organizations is very common. It can be done constitutionally, but it often it is not,” Smith said. “FCA receiving a public contribution is not a problem, per se; it’s all about what they do with that money.”
County attorney Jay Ross, who worked on the contract with representatives from regional FCA groups, said there had been concerns expressed over county contributions to FCA in the past, but he’s confident the $4,000 approved Monday is appropriate because it won’t be supporting specific programs.
According to Ross, the group initially sought funds from the county to support its “Huddles,” which are small group Bible studies and devotionals for coaches and athletes often held at local schools. He said FCA was asked to resubmit its request and, instead, seek funding for its broader organizational needs.
“We had them contractually state how they’d use the funds the county will be providing, which are to be used solely for administrative purposes like the overhead of running their offices and things like that — not for any specific program or to promote their Christian ideology,” Ross said. “There is an accountability process for this, and they may be asked to show how they’ve spent the money. All of these types of contracts have an accountability feature built-in.”
Smith said he’s seen similar language about “administrative costs” around the country, and he cautioned, without due diligence from the government entity providing the grant, some of those expenses can run afoul of the separation of church and state concept because they’re too broad.
“My question is always: ‘What does [administrative costs] mean?’” he asked. “Are we talking about rent for a building? Well … is the building used for a religious purpose? Is it money for printer paper? Well then, is that paper promoting Christian ideology?”
The contribution from Mobile County follows one of FCA’s largest national supporters, Chick-fil-A, ending its relationship with the organization last month. The fast-food giant said donations to FCA and other Christian organizations like the Salvation Army stopped at the end of a multiyear commitment.
However, the decision also followed recent backlash from some consumers and protestors upset by supposedly “anti-LGBTQ” views espoused by those companies. In 2017 and 2018, the Chick-fil-A Foundation gave $2.4 million to FCA to help fund sports camps for underserved youth, and the company is still sponsoring an FCA student rally in Mobile ahead of the Reese’s Senior Bowl next month.
Emails sent to representatives of the Southern Alabama FCA were not immediately returned Monday.
The actual contract commissioners authorized Dec. 9 allows the county funds to be used to “defer the cost of leadership camps for [local] student-athletes,” but it also specifically prohibits them from paying for Huddles, Huddle supplies or for the Jan. 22 Senior Bowl rally at the Mobile Civic Center.
According to information on FCA’s website, those leadership camps are intended to “teach practical skills for Christian growth, the development of effective campus leaders” and to provide training that develops “spiritual, organizational and motivational tools for use in FCA’s campus ministry.”
The contract also includes language that prohibits FCA from excluding anyone from participating in its activities based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. The agenda item was submitted by Commission President Jerry Carl and was taken from the discretionary funding allocated to his district.
Asked about some of the recent concerns some have had with FCA, Carl said he’s seen firsthand the impact the organization has made on student-athletes at local schools. He specifically noted the success of the FCA program at Theodore High School, which he said has produced “incredible” and “successful” athletes from “some rough backgrounds.”
“I know it says fellowship of Christian athletes, but they work with all these kids. It doesn’t matter if they’re Muslim, Jewish or agnostic — they work with them. This is a good group that’s trying to help kids during their teenage years and during hard times in their lives,” Carl said. “I see the results, and I couldn’t tell you if some of those athletes are Christian or not, but at least they’ve got somebody to talk to and somebody to share their pains and struggles with. Being 16, 17 years old … I wouldn’t want to go back.”
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