Atheist legal challenge could devastate National Baptist Convention gathering

Bartle Hall Convention Centre, where the National Baptist Convention is to meet next week.Charvex/Wikipedia

The largest African-American denomination in the US is facing a funding crisis on the eve of its annual gathering next week because of a lawsuit filed by an atheist group.

The National Baptist Convention is due to meet in Kansas City from September 5-9 and was relying on a $65,000 grant from the city's tourism budget to transport attenders from their hotels to the conference hall.

However, late last month American Atheists Inc filed a lawsuit in a federal court alleging that this funding would violate Missouri's constitution, which prohibits using public funds for religious purposes.

The money was due to go to Modest Miles Ministries, which was to organise the shuttle. Its founder Rev John Modest Miles, a Kansas City Baptist minister, told the Kansas City News and Observer: "All of us are in tears. I'm up at night praying. That's all I know to do."

The gathering is expected to make a lot of money for the city, drawing around 20,000 delegates and family members who will take up 8,200 hotel rooms. The econonomic impact on the has been estimated at around $7.9 million by VisitKC, the city's convention and tourism agency.

Jerry Young, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said in a telephone interview with the Kansas City Star: "When you spend money to bring 20,000 people to your city, you're not spending that money to promote the cause. You're spending that money because it just makes sense," he said.

He said it was a business meeting of the denomination and that some portions of the convention are open to the public.

"Once you decide that you can't do this because this is a religious group you have just decided you're going to discriminate against religion and all the religious people in Kansas City who pay taxes," he said. "How asinine is that?"

The Black Health Care Coalition has launched a GoFundMe effort to help raise the $65,000 shortfall. Its president Melissa Robinson said in a statement: "The convention has a social justice and social service agenda that we cannot ignore. They are working on a criminal justice agenda, disaster relief, housing and health. We feel compelled to support these efforts."