The Mobile County Commission agreed last week to make a small contribution to a local event hosted by a religious organization only to renege on that support at the advice of its legal team.
That contribution — part of the Commission’s Dec. 28 regular agenda — was $2,500 intended to help underwrite the cost of the National Baptist Convention’s Mid-Winter Board Meeting, which will be held at the Mobile Convention Center later this month.
As contribution was conditionally approved, though, Commissioner Connie Hudson tasked the county’s legal staff with reviewing the legality of giving public funds to a private religious organization before the transaction actually occurs.
“I questioned it because I’ve always been of the understanding that it would disallow appropriating funds to any religious institution,” Hudson said. “To me, there’s just so much ambiguity, and it just makes me a little bit uncomfortable without having an absolute opinion that this is within legal guidelines before we move forward.”
Hudson, who eventually voted to move the item forward, said she wasn’t personally opposed to the contribution to the National Baptist Convention but “wanted to be completely comfortable” about the legality before moving forward.
Like many religious organizations, the National Baptist Convention is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and is recognized as exempt from federal income tax. Governmental bodies have regularly supported similarly situated groups in the past, but only in aspects of their mission that aren’t directly religious in nature.
That primarily occurs when those organizations do charitable work, as Commission President Merceria Ludgood pointed out. She also noted Mobile County has previously made contributions to organizations like The Salvation Army, which she described as “a church.”
“This is not for religious purposes, this is to fund the programs of the organization. You can fund a program, as long you’re not funding an evangelistic aspect of it,” she said. “We’re helping to underwrite the cost of locating the winter board meeting for a national organization here. If it had another name, I don’t think it would have attracted the attention it has.”
The National Baptist Convention has already released a tentative schedule for the conference in Mobile, and though it does include some religious services, it mostly consists of organizational assemblies and meetings of smaller subgroups and boards.
After a legal review, though, Mobile County Attorney Jay Ross ultimately determined the $2,500 contribution would “not be supported by state law” because the convention in Mobile serves no public purpose.
“Other groups, like The Salvation Army, serve a public purpose by assisting the homeless or something like that, and that’s kind of the litmus test for determining what’s appropriate,” Ross said. “This particular event does not serve any public purpose.”
However, there are other ways public funds can be used for private purposes, religious or otherwise. Under Alabama law, cities and counties are allowed to lend credit or grant public funds “to any individual, firm, corporation or other business entity, public or private, for the purpose of promoting economic and industrial development.”
Public funds can also be used to subsidize tourism efforts and events expected to have a positive economic impact, and both city and county money have already gone toward securing the business the National Baptist Convention is expected to bring to town.
“To compete in the realm of the conventions world, there are times that, from the county’s marketing firm and from our budget, we will subsidize a conference to offset the cost and get that business here, if it has a substantial economic impact,” Visit Mobile President David Clark said. “We look at the value it’s offering the city and the business impact before we allocate those dollars, not only with religious groups but business, sports, and fraternal groups as well.”
To secure an agreement with National Baptist Convention, Clark said Visit Mobile committed $15,000 to subsidize the cost of hosting its Mid-Winter Board Meeting in Mobile. An additional $20,000 was pulled from a marketing fund generated by Mobile County’s 2 percent lodging tax.
As Lagniappe previously reported, that tax was established in 2001 specifically for funding promoting general tourism and conventions. With a typical season lull in tourism, though, Clark said the convention was “a nice piece of business” for downtown.
According to Clark, the group has blocked off close to 2,500 hotel rooms for multiple days, adding that between lodging, food and beverage and transportation, the convention is projected to have up to a $1.5 million economic impact for Mobile.