By Greg Jackson
To be clear from the start, I am neither a constitutional expert nor a biblical scholar. I am, however, a person who has been trained to interpret the legal meaning and effect of words, as well as the Assistant Superintendent of my church’s Church School and a Sunday School Teacher. It is through the lens of the former that I viewed a recent position taken by the City of Apopka. As some may recall, last year Apopka Commission was asked to provide financial support for a Gospel Festival that would have brought a positive focus to the City during a time when it was needed most. However, the Commission was advised that it should not support any activity involving a religious institution or any religious activity because municipalities are prohibited from supporting religious functions or activities. Now mind you, the City has allocated and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on similar multi- day festivals, and even recently hosted symphonic sounds under the stars without a single peep. But, when it came to a festival that highlighted a certain genre of music that happened to be faith-based, the City was encouraged – no directed – to avoid all Gospel Festivals or religious-based functions for no good reason, other than it was religious. This, in my interpretation (and humble opinion), is an unfortunate position rendered to the City, which gives the appearance that Apopka is pro-business but anti-religion.
The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution state that no law shall be passed “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” While some may interpret this to mean that a governmental agency (i.e., city, county, state, etc.) should not contribute funds to support a religious program, the U.S. Supreme Court, and I, believe quite differently. Recently, in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the high court of the land ruled that governments cannot discriminate against churches that would otherwise qualify for funding just because they are religious institutions. In other words, if Apopka has no issue allocating funds to non-religious festivals, programs and/or functions, than Apopka should not be directed to refuse to allocate funding for any “religious” festival, program and/or function, just because it is religious in nature. Now do not misinterpret what I am saying here and think that I support religious institutions unfettered access to public dollars, I do not support that for any organization or entity. However, what I do support is providing support to all worthwhile entities and not omitting any just because of a certain classification, particularly where the organization serves the greater whole and good of the community.
Greg Jackson is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida, a military veteran, current Orange County District 2 Representative on the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and General Counsel for the Community Redevelopment Agency. He has been as an active member of the Central Florida community for nearly 20 years. He was most recently a candidate for the Florida House District 45 seat.