MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The separation of church and state is at the center of a debate over a basketball arena at a college in Missouri. St. Louis University, a Catholic school, says tax money is vital to building its new arena. But there's concern that giving the school any public money violates the constitution.
From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Matt Sepic reports.
MATT SEPIC: With its verdant grounds and eclectic mix of buildings, the campus of St. Louis University was, for a long time, an oasis in a crumbing, urban desert. But now this part of town is alive again, with theaters, art galleries and luxury condos. The rebirth stems in part from tax incentives for developers. Now the university wants its share of that for its new $80 million basketball arena. And in the spirit of urban renewal, the city gladly agreed to pay 10 percent of the cost.
But the local Masonic temple, a neighbor at St. Louis U, sued the school and the city. Its lawyer, James Stemmler, says the arena plan crosses the line between church and state.
Mr. JAMES STEMMLER (Attorney): They might play this field strongly that the constitution means what it says. There shouldn't really be public funds spent for any particular religion.
SEPIC: A clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution famously prohibits the government from establishing an official religion. But those suing the university are focusing instead on the Missouri constitution.
Tony Rothert is with local ACLU, also a party to this case. He says the state constitution is much more to the point.
Mr. TONY ROTHERT (ACLU): The Missouri constitution is stricter, and says no wage shall be given to any educational institution that's religious, including universities. So it's very clear in the Missouri constitution.
SEPIC: But St. Louis University says it has not crossed the church-state line because it's not controlled by any religious group. That led the university student paper to accuse the administration of selling out the school's Jesuit heritage. But after a recent Missouri supreme court hearing, university lawyer Bill Kauffman said school leaders are not being disingenuous. He said neither the local Catholic archdiocese nor the Vatican has any say in how the university is ran, and that's the key point of the case.
Mr. BILL KAUFFMAN (University Lawyer): We are guided by the principles of the principles of the Catholic Jesuit tradition, but being guided does not translate into control. Control of the university is really by the board of Trustees of St. Louis University.
SEPIC: Mike Koby, who teaches law across town at Washington University, says St. Louis U has some solid arguments. But he says part of the reason the federal and state constitutions emphasize church-state separation is because their authors thought government power might creep into the church and force religious leaders to compromise their principles.
Professor MICHAEL KOBY (Law, Washington University): And I think that's what's happening here at some level is that you have the administrators at St. Louis University really saying things that they wouldn't tell their donors. They wouldn't say at the annual fundraising meeting that this isn't really a Catholic university, and that is unfortunate.
SEPIC: The Missouri Supreme Court gave no indication when it might rule on the matter, but attorneys around the state are watching this case closely because they expect any ruling to sharpen the often fuzzy line that exists between church and state.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.