SOUTH BEND – An attorney for four South Bend residents trying to block the city from transferring property it bought for $1.2 million to a Roman Catholic high school for use as a football field asked a federal judge on Wednesday to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the transaction, arguing it is unconstitutional.
Gavin Rose, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, told U.S. District Judge Robert Miller during the hour long hearing that by selling the land to St. Joseph’s High School for $1 the city is giving substantial and direct aid to a religious institution, violating the First Amendment.
He also said that the move supports religious indoctrination because St. Joseph’s High School will say prayers before games, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional.
“There is absolutely no difference in giving them an athletic field where they can pray or giving them a chapel,” Rose argued.
City Attorney Chuck Leone argued the transaction is constitutional because the city is receiving something of value in return because city schools and community organizations will be allowed to use the field and that the neighboring parking lot and the school will enhance and revitalize the neighborhood and help with economic development.
“On its face, it’s for a secular purpose,” Leone said.
The South Bend City Council voted 5-4 in June in favor of Mayor Steve Luecke’s request to buy a half-acre lot that is currently the site of a Family Dollar store and transfer it to a non-profit neighborhood revitalization group that would transfer it to the high school.
St. Joseph’s High School is building a new $35 million high school on a 21-acre lot that is the former site of St. Joseph Regional Medical Center near downtown. The school, which is moving from its current location near the University of Notre Dame, is scheduled to move into the new facility next year.
The school moving to the new site fits in with the city’s economic plan of trying to draw more businesses to downtown, Leone said. The city has helped other groups, including giving the Salvation Army $1 million to build a community center, and it has helped business, for-profit and non-profit groups as well as public institutions and other religious organizations, Leone said.
“We’re willing to work with anyone who is working to make South Bend a better place,” Leone said.
The judge questioned Leone, though, about why the city would need to use economic development money to keep St. Joseph’s High in the community when the school already had begun construction of the new school. Leone said the purchase had “incidental value” and compared it to a city paving a road in front of a church.
“It makes access to the church easier but it doesn’t mean the city supports the church,” he said.
Miller said he will issue a ruling by Sept. 9, the earliest the city says the transaction could be made.
South Bend is in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.