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Church/stateSeparation of church and state – a concern often reserved for state or federal government – hit home Wednesday (July 5) in a complicated discussion over relocating Fluvanna’s food pantry.

Fluvanna Christian Service Society (FCSS) learned at a Board of Supervisors meeting that Fluvanna County will begin charging FCSS rent for the land on which its buildings sit behind the Carysbrook complex.

Though the rent, about $600 per year, is small compared to typical rent charges, FCSS member Susan Hughes said the bill will create a hardship for the donation-dependent organization.

Hughes said she feels that the county is penalizing her organization for its religious affiliation. FCSS
The Christian organization runs Fluvanna’s food pantry, which provides free food to needy families in the county.

Last year FCSS paid almost $29,000 toward mortgages, rent, electric bills, medical bills and other expenses of residents in need, Hughes said. In 2016 the organization served 1,104 households with a total of 2,631 people.

In other words, last year alone FCSS helped one in 10 people in Fluvanna County.

FCSS also runs Happy Face, a yearly program that gives new toys to children at Christmas. Each child also receives a $20 voucher to spend at dollar stores or similar establishments. It buys turkeys to distribute for meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas. “We’d have a couple hundred children that would have no Christmas” if FCSS ceased operation, Hughes said.

The organization helps senior citizens during the holidays and provides a $500 scholarship to a graduating Fluvanna County High School student.

“If we cut out FCSS there will be a lot of people that don’t have clothing, food, diapers or toys,” Hughes said.

FCSS is “100 percent donation funded,” Hughes said. Her church, Byrd Chapel, collects a “love offering” once or twice a year for the organization. Many other churches in Fluvanna do likewise, she said.
Most of the county’s 60 or so churches have a representative in FCSS, Hughes said. A typical meeting gathers 25 to 30 people at a time.

Moving the food pantry
For years FCSS has used a shed, a small building, and part of what is now the public works building behind the Carysbrook complex to house its food and supplies. The organization owns its two buildings and uses no county utilities. It has not been paying rent for the land on which its buildings sit, said County Administrator Steve Nichols.

“They probably should have been,” said County Attorney Fred Payne when Supervisor Mozell Booker raised the point at the meeting.

FCSS wants to buy two shed-style buildings and move its existing shed about 200 feet from its current location to a new location across from the Monticello Area Community Action Agency (MACAA) thrift store.
It will be much easier to unload food to the new location, said Chairman Mike Sheridan at the meeting.

Nichols also appreciates the change in location. “This is a much better solution for them,” he said after the meeting. “It will be right in the same parking lot as MACAA and not in the public works building.”

The issue at stake isn’t moving the sheds, it’s the fact that the county intends to begin charging FCSS rent for the land on which its buildings sit.

Virginia code specifies that counties cannot donate to religious organizations. Section § 15.2-953 states:
Any locality may make appropriations of public funds, of personal property or of any real estate and donations…to any charitable institution or association, located within their respective limits or outside their limits if such institution or association provides services to residents of the locality; however, such institution or association shall not be controlled in whole or in part by any church or sectarian society.

The code goes on to state:

The words “sectarian society” shall not be construed to mean a nondenominational Young Men’s Christian Association, a nondenominational Young Women’s Christian Association, Habitat for Humanity, or the Salvation Army. Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit any county or city from making contracts with any sectarian institution for the care of indigent, sick or injured persons.

The county therefore needs to charge FCSS rent on the fair market value for the land, Payne’s office determined. Given the small size of the land and its location, Nichols said $50 per month seemed reasonable.

FCSS pushed back against the decision. “We’re a small organization,” said Hughes at the meeting. “We have no money. Even a couple hundred dollars in a hardship on us, because all the money we take in we put back into the community.”

When Booker asked about the difference between YMCA, to which the county is allowed to donate, and FCSS, Payne gave a lawyerly answer: “YMCA is specifically exempted and they’re not.”

“We’re not a religious group,” Hughes said after the meeting, referring to the contact FCSS has with the people it helps. “We don’t make people pray before they come and get anything. We don’t pray at the Happy Face event. We’re just Christians trying to help our people.”

“I don’t think they’re using this religiously,” said Sheridan at the meeting.

“They could be the Fluvanna Good Deeds Society,” Nichols said. But given that they’re not, “I’m not sure you can get around it by state law.”

“I think the statute is pretty clear, and we’re bound by the statute, like it or not,” said Payne.

“We don’t like it,” said Booker.

“You’re entitled not to like it, but you have to follow it,” said Payne.

Nichols said that though $600 per year for FCSS “is not an insubstantial amount, I’m just positive as a private citizen that we can very easily find enough to cover that in a year. I just don’t know any other way to recommend to you how to get around the current state law.”

“Any money that is taken out for rent will be taken away from the citizens,” said Hughes. The food pantry “hasn’t cost the county anything.”

Sheridan proposed charging the organization $1 per year, but Nichols reiterated that the county needs to charge fair market value.

“I know how much work they do and how they benefit our county,” said Nichols. “But it is a really slippery slope… If it were legal I’d be advocating for you to do it. I just don’t know a way to do it other than fair market value. And fair market value will be as reasonable as we can make it...without violating the law.”

Much of the frustration seemed to spring from the definition of the word “sectarian.”

“We aren’t sectarian,” said Hughes after the meeting. “We are not representing a specific church – we are representing Christian people in the county. Sectarian is one religion. We have Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Christians – it doesn’t matter. We’re all the churches, not one specific thing.”

But Payne disagreed. “Sectarian means religious, not just within a religion,” he said after the meeting.

“We’re bound by the statute as long as it’s in effect,” said Payne after the meeting.

“The law of the Commonwealth is clear and we don’t have any choice that I can see,” Nichols said after the meeting. “The rent amount will be fairly nominal.”

Hughes worried about the impact the rent bill would have on the people FCSS serves. “If you have people who can’t pay their rent they’ll be out on the street,” she said after the meeting. “They come and we pay their rent.”

FCSS member Bertha Armstrong felt more positive. “I do believe [county leaders] support the efforts of what we’re trying to do, but there are limitations, and when there are limitations we have to deal with them,” she said after the meeting. “I feel that it’s going to be worked out… We will raise that money.”