ACLU Demands W. Virginia County Stop Funding Annual ‘Jesus Fest’ Event

A battle is brewing in Charleston, West Virginia, between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Harrison County Commission.

Every August, a two-day festival called Jesus Fest takes place in Clarksburg. And each year, the county provides $2,000 in funding to the initiative — support that the ACLU is claiming must end.

In a Dec. 20, 2011 letter, the state’s ACLU office asked county commissioners to stop funding the festival, as it is an initiative which promotes Christianity. In the eyes of the ACLU, this is clearly a constitutional breach.

Below, find a description of Jesus Fest:

The event is 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. The event focuses on evangelism and outreach to the unsaved by means of family oriented activities and events in an atmosphere of interdenominational praise and worship and the preaching of the gospel. Reaching out to the hurting and oppressed is a biblical mandate for us as a redeemed people.

In the letter (it can be read in its entirety here), the organization charges that the funding of the festival directly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as West Virginia’s constitution. Here’s a portion of it:

The ACLU claims that it is acting on behalf of Harrison County residents who have complained and are bothered by the county’s support for the Jesus Fest. The commission has not yet made a decision regarding funding and is waiting for a recommendation from Prosector Joe Shaffer before taking any action on the matter.

Commissioner Ron Watson says that the group is “waiting to see what kind of legal ground” it stands on in addressing the matter.

Watson also clarified some misconceptions about the monies being used. Rather than coming from taxpayer dollars, Jesus Fest is funded from video lottery and table game revenue. This money comes from the state and is, thus, distributed to the county. According to Watson, this money funds other festivals and community events as well.

“Fairs and festivals its not taxpayers money,” Watson explains.”It’s money we fund all fairs and festivals regardless of what the subject manner is. It is usually open to the public. And doing so that money does not come from property tax money. It comes from what I call devil’s money which is gambling money from video lottery and table games that the county has received.”

B.K. Vanhorn, who organizes the Jesus Fest, says that the festival gets the same privileges as other local celebrations. For instance, the commission also provides funds for the Italian Heritage Festival and the Black Heritage Festival.

Watson, like Vanhorn, doesn’t see any problem with the funding of the Jesus Fest. Another commissioner, Michael Romano, who is a member of the ACLU, is standing up against the organization’s stance on this matter as well.

The Commission has given Jesus Fest $2,000 each year for the past five years.