CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — In response to threats by the ACLU of West Virginia to sue Harrison County, W.V., unless the County stops providing funding for “Jesus Fest,” an annual Christian music festival, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute are urging County officials to stand their ground, secure in the knowledge that they are acting in accordance with the First Amendment’s call for neutrality in matters dealing with religion. In offering their assistance to County officials, Institute attorneys point out that despite what the ACLU may say, Harrison County’s funding policy appears to properly achieve the balance required by the Establishment Clause in light of the fact that the County regularly supports a number of community festivals and other public events and determines its support based on neutral, even-handed criteria. Moreover, were the County to accede to the ACLU’s demands and deny grant money to Jesus Fest strictly because of the event’s religious nature, they could find themselves engaging in viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the First Amendment.
“Harrison County’s approach to community festival funding is one that respects the civil liberties of all citizens—religious and non-religious alike,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Clearly, the constitutionally sound approach is for Harrison County to continue to provide funding for a variety of diverse community festivals on a religion-neutral basis, as has been its practice. To do otherwise would be to risk violating the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and religious neutrality by engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination.”
In a December 2011 letter, the ACLU of West Virginia demanded that Harrison County cease sponsoring “Jesus Fest,” which takes place every August in Clarksburg, W.Va., and is described by its organizers as “a family oriented festival with a focus on creating unity in the Body of Christ, which is accomplished through an interdenominational approach utilizing ecumenical leadership and the involvement of local area churches.” One of the stated goals of Jesus Fest is to “reach into our families by providing an environment where Christians can unite in fun, food and fellowship, listen to Christian music, hear the exciting news of our Lord and enjoy themselves in the love of Jesus.” The ACLU contends that the religious nature of Jesus Fest alone makes County support of the event unconstitutional. However, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute counter that a religiously-neutral system of funding community festivals and events does not offend the First Amendment but rather is in keeping with the Establishment Clause.
According to documents obtained by the ACLU, the funds provided to Jesus Fest by the County Commission for Harrison County, W.V., do not directly benefit any religious group, but rather cover general expenses such as “children’s movies” and “second stage cost.” Moreover, as Rutherford Institute attorneys make clear, Harrison County supports a diverse array of community festivals in addition to Jesus Fest, including the West Virginia Blackberry Festival, the Scottish Festival & Celtic Gathering, and other public events, all of which are given grants on a religion-blind basis. Institute attorneys have offered to assist the County should the ACLU choose to follow through on its threat of a lawsuit. The ACLU has asked that the County respond to its legal demand letter by January 6.