As Miami Springs leaders pondered a request by a local church for funds to co-sponsor a popular movie night on the town circle, one resident quickly moved to stop it.
“We should have separation of church and state,” said Nery Owens, 66, at the Nov. 19 council meeting after a church representative from All Angels Episcopal church requested money from the city to help with the event. “What makes All Angels a sacred cow?”
Owens estimated that it would cost the city $15,000 to pay for a police officer to assist with traffic control for the series of five movie nights usually held the last Friday of the month. But Police Chief Pete Baan clarified that the amount would not exceed a total of about $2,000.
“Let them come up with the money or charge for movie night,” said Owens, who also questioned whether the council was unduly influenced by Councilwoman Jennifer Ator, who serves on the church’s board of directors. “Get someone from their church to volunteer and walk people across the street.”
The city has co-sponsored a movie night with All Angels since 2009. The church pays for the movie screen rental as well as for some publicity, said Mindy McNichols, a senior warden at the church.
“We put up, take down and clean up,” McNichols said. “This is something we like to do for the community.”
McNichols added that All Angels does not profit from the event.
“Respectfully, it has nothing to do with separation of church and state,” said City Attorney Jan Seiden, who pointed out that no “proselytization” or church services were being held during the event. “This is a totally secular activity.”
However, one of the nation’s top First Amendment attorneys thinks that Miami Springs would be wise not to make a direct monetary contribution for the movie night.
“If the movies being shown were themselves of a sectarian nature, it could be said that the city’s donation has a sectarian purpose and that the primary effect would be advancing religion,” said Attorney Tom Julin, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP, whose team won a landmark First Amendment decision in 2011 before the U.S. Supreme Court. “If the movies were of a secular nature, this probably would not be true, but if the government made the donation conditional on the movies not conveying sectarian messages, this might result in excessive entanglement because this condition require prior review of the movies and a determination of whether a movie conveys a sectarian message.”
Julin, who emailed The Miami Herald a legal and scholarly analysis about the church’s movie night, said that many movies carry mixed messages or are subject to different interpretations, so trying to decide whether a given movie is advancing or inhibiting a religion likely would be difficult and significant disputes could arise. Instead, he reasons it is more prudent to use the resources to provide whatever security it regards as appropriate for public events of any nature.
Before the council voted on the matter, Mayor Zavier Garcia pointed out that there was a line item in the budget for movie night and that All Angels had done a great job with the event in the past.
“This is something we wanted to happen as a city,” Garcia said. “All Angels grabbed the bull by the horns.”
The city council voted 4-0 to continue funding All Angels movie night. Councilwoman Jennifer Ator abstained from voting.