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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is demanding the Mingo County Commission end its ties to the Ambassador Christian Academy. Travis Crum/Williamson Daily News

WILLIAMSON - A national atheist organization is demanding the Mingo County Commission stop all financial support to the Ambassador Christian Academy and rescind its lease agreement immediately.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter on Friday addressed to the commission, alleging the county is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits governments from financially supporting religious schools.

"FFRF has received several complaints regarding the County's ongoing financial support of Ambassador Christian Academy (ACA)," wrote Christopher Line, a legal fellow for the organization. "It is our understanding that since 2014, the school has rented a County building for $1 per year and that the County has been paying a vast majority of ACA's utility bills."

He added, "It is unconstitutional for the County to support a private religious school, either by renting space to the school for less than fair market value or by paying the school's utility bills. We request that the County immediately rescind its lease agreement with Ambassador Christian Academy."

The non-profit organization, based in Wisconsin, says it has 30,000 members with a goal to "protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism."

Last year in West Virginia, the group successfully sued to end Bible-themed classes in Mercer County schools and stopped Bible handouts to fifth-grade students in Brooke County.

According to the letter, the federal courts have already ruled against building a religious school on public land in Wirtz v. City of South Bend.

"The court explained that 'Governmental programs or actions that provide special benefits to specific religious entities are impermissible..." Line wrote.

In 2013, the Mingo County Commission purchased the former Williamson High School and Middle School complex for $300,000.

The following year, commissioners approached the Regional Church of God in Delbarton and asked to move a Christian school into the former middle school building, creating the Ambassador Christian Academy. Commissioners released the building to the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, which leased it to the school.

In turn, the county agreed to pay for all utilities that first year, eventually paying approximately $38,000 in payments, according to a Williamson Daily News investigation.

For the next two years, the Christian school paid a portion of the utilities, while the county paid at least $7,000 in utility expenses. The redevelopment authority also paid approximately $30,000 in utility payments.

The county also pays utilities to the former Williamson High School's gym and cafeteria, which the Christian school uses almost exclusively.

Commissioners will hold a special meeting on Tuesday to vote on whether to pay gas and electric bills owed for the gym and cafeteria after Commissioner Thomas Taylor refused to pay them during a regular meeting earlier this week.

Commissioner Greg "Hootie" Smith was absent from that meeting, making a decision to pay the bills a tie vote between Taylor and Commission President Diann Hannah.

Hannah, who has grandchildren who attend the school and a son-in-law who is athletic director, is in favor of paying all bills to the gym and cafeteria.

Taylor is a vocal advocate for severing all financial ties to the Christian school and putting the Williamson High School and Middle School complex on the market. He has previously questioned whether the agreement violates separation of church and state.

Smith, who was on the commission during the original 2014 deal, has argued the support of the Christian school is necessary to maintain the life of the former middle school building.

"ACA cannot continue to operate in County-owned facilities without paying fair market value," Line wrote in his letter to the county. "Even if ACA were to pay such rent, this permanent use of publicly-owned facilities constitutes an unconstitutional advancement and entanglement with religion."

The organization is asking for the county to file a formal response with its "immediate steps to terminate this unconstitutional arrangement."

"Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing tax payers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship," Line wrote.

FFRF was active in West Virginia just last year, successfully ending Bible-themed classes and lesson plans taught in Mercer County schools.

The group filed a lawsuit on behalf of two parents and two children arguing the classes were a violation of church and state because they enforced creationism and the belief humans and dinosaurs existed together. Mercer County announced it would cease all Bible-related curriculum in response to the lawsuit, which was later dismissed by a judge for lack of jurisdiction. The organization has since appealed the ruling.

In November, the group persuaded Follansbee Middle School in Brooke County to deny access to Gideons International, which previously handed out Bibles to 10 and 11-year-old students.

The organization says the school district ended the practice when it asked to hand out atheist material alongside the Gideons' Bibles.

Travis Crum is a reporter for the Williamson Daily News. He may be reached by phone at 304-236-6497.

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