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Just Another Day In Illinois Politics: Governor, Atheist, School, and Church Spar Over $1 Million

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Jul 24, 2008 5:00PM

2008_07_24_pilgrim.jpgGovernor Blagojevich is in hot water over what he deems a "bureaucratic" mistake which gave a school $1 million dollars intended for a historic, burned-down church. In the midst of his re-election campaign, Blago pledged to give $1 million to Pilgrim Baptist Church, which was destroyed by a January 2006 fire. At the time, the Loop Lab School was renting space in the church and now, Elmira Mayes, leader of the school, is contradicting Blago's claim of a mistake, saying he personally promised her money for the school.

Mayes said the governor visited the fire site and talked with her as she was sifting through debris from her burned-out school, which had rented space from the church. She did not recall the governor's exact words but "he told me he would help build the school and give $1 million."
The school has sent relocated to a new condo across the street from the Sears Towers but has yet to reopen. Spokesmen for the governor insist there was confusion about the church's relationship to the school, but Chandra Gill, a relative of Mayes' who is now running the school, disagrees. "He knew she wasn't the preacher. We are grateful and thankful. We did everything we were supposed to do with the million dollars. It was a great investment."

As for Pilgrim Baptist Church, Blagojevich insists they will still get their money. However, atheist activist Rob Sherman is suing to prevent the church from getting the money, saying the pledge violates the separation of church and state.

"You can't force citizens to support a particular church," Sherman said.

"We all know Rod did this two months before his primary election victory over Edwin Eisendrath. January 2006, when the fire happens, and he's in the March primary against Eisendrath, Rod was pandering for black votes. I understand that. But you can't have the state donating $1 million to a church. You can't do that with tax dollars."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity says the pledge is legal because the church hosts nonreligious community activites: "The grant to Pilgrim Baptist Church is constitutional and proper. It has a clear secular purpose -- the construction of a community center that will house social programs open to the public regardless of religious affiliation or ability to pay."

Photo by The New No. 2