Religion issue clouds Kroc deal

A demand from the city of Duluth to tone down some of the religious elements planned for the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center could be "a deal-breaker," the Salvation Army's Minneapolis attorney said Tuesday.

A demand from the city of Duluth to tone down some of the religious elements planned for the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center could be "a deal-breaker," the Salvation Army's Minneapolis attorney said Tuesday.

The city appears ready to take outside legal advice to ensure that religious symbols not be prominently displayed in the community center before committing $7.5 million in taxpayer money. That means no Bible verses on gym walls and no giant cross and steeple -- as planned -- on the building's exterior, according to the legal opinion by attorney Corrine Thomson of the Minneapolis law firm Kennedy and Graven.

But the new requirements -- which the city has directed be included in development and use agreements with the Salvation Army -- have the potential to maim or kill the complicated pact.

And at a Tuesday night Planning Commission meeting, members decided to table a vote to approve the $377,000 sale of five acres of Wheeler Field, where the $20 million facility would be built.

Commission member Roger Wedin said a special planning commission meeting is proposed for Nov. 28 because the group wants to maintain the Salvation Army's timeline. The planning group wants to make its decision before the City Council's scheduled Dec. 4 meeting, at which councilors could vote on the issue.


The commission had too many unanswered questions. Friday's placement of the issue on the group's agenda is to blame, commission President John Vigen said.

"You're asking the Planning Commission to do something with two days' notice, and that isn't adequate," he said.

Questions of whether the park land can be sold legally and how the cost of the land was determined were raised.

"We were not prepared to vote with the information at hand," Vigen said.

Wedin said selling park land is a rare event in Duluth and "we didn't want to be cavalier about doing it."

The center promises to be a$50 million investment in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods,xLincoln Park/West End, with mostly Salvation Army money.

"In this proposal, without some kind of compromise, this is a deal-breaker," said the Salvation Army's Minneapolis attorney, Doug Franzen.

He said, however, that he's hopeful a compromise can be reached.


"If religious symbols are visible in areas that are used by the city, the arrangement between the city and Salvation Army could be subject to [legal] attack as having the effect of advancing religion," Thomson wrote to Duluth City Attorney Bryan Brown.

Franzen said the city's position would "unduly and unnecessarily" restrict the Salvation Army's free expression of faith, as well as religious freedom.

Brown's office hired Thomson to determine the city's vulnerability to lawsuits based on the First Amendment and separation of church and state, because the Salvation Army is a church. Brown said Tuesday that he has already asked to incorporate all of Thomson's language into the agreements.

The proposed Kroc Center use agreement would provide Duluth with 750 hours a year for city basketball leagues, swim events and other uses. It also dictates that the city's share of the endowment can be used only for recreational, not religious, activities.

But Thomson wrote that the current agreements' language doesn't go far enough. She looked at the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions, state statutes and legal precedents to come up with guidelines for the city as it looks to close the Kroc Center deal.

She wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court has found similar partnerships to be legal as long as a government takes measures to avoid "excessive entanglement with religion," provides for only secular uses and does not advance one religion over others.

She recommended the following changes:

* During any period of use by the city, vestiges of religion [including religious symbols or identification] shall not be visible in portions of the project that are in use by the city.


* Religious symbols or identification must not be visible from an entrance that will be used by participants in city programs.

* The name can't have religious connotations.

* The facility's design should not incorporate architectural features that cause it to resemble a church.

* The project building should not have a religious name.

* The city must conduct periodic reviews of financial records to make sure that city money is being spent on allowed purposes.

* The city should conduct periodic inspections to ensure that the city's use of the facilities is secular.

"With the changes we have recommended, the city agreement should satisfy First Amendment requirements," Thomson wrote.

The 85,000-square-foot center would provide services for the elderly, poor, children and teenagers. The public can have access to the swimming pool, indoor water park, gym and fitness center through memberships and day passes, for a price.


Franzen said he outlined the Salvation Army's legal position in an e-mail he sent to Brown late Tuesday afternoon. He declined to comment publicly on the letter's contents until he hears back from Brown.

"I truly hope we can put this together, and I truly think we can," Franzen said.

Spending taxpayer money on a center with a chapel and religious mission has concerned members of the public and a few city councilors. It will be up to the Duluth City Council to decide on Dec. 4 whether the language of the agreements is satisfactory.

Council President Roger Reinert said everything that he read made complete sense.

"I hope that the Salvation Army will look at this and say it's a non-issue and follow it [the recommendations] so nobody can say this is the entanglement of church and state," said At Large City Councilor Jim Stauber. "We go way overboard on this stuff. People have to understand that the Salvation Army is a religious organization, and this is an opportunity we can't miss out on."

Councilor Garry Krause, whose district includes the proposed Kroc Center site, said there should be no overtly religious items in the city spaces. However, both Krause and At Large Councilor Don Ness also said they are more concerned about Kroc Center economics.

Ness said he doesn't think regular citizens are getting enough for the city's investment.

Krause said he still needs to see long-term operating and maintenance budget projections before he'll vote yes. The Salvation Army has another presentation before the City Council scheduled for Nov. 27.


Seven of nine councilors are needed for the city to contribute $7.5 million in previously pledged taxpayer money toward the center's $30 million operations and maintenance endowment.

News Tribune reporter Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

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