By Richard Sullins |

Members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners received a letter Thursday from a Wisconsin-based foundation expressing legal concerns over its vote last November to award $500,000 in federal grant funds to a local group affiliated with a Sanford-based church that still has not received approval from the IRS to operate as a tax-exempt organization or to receive grant funding.

The letter, dated March 23 and sent by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, effectively puts the commissioners on notice that they could face legal action if they vote again to award funding from federal COVID relief dollars to the Life Springs Action Team (LSAT), a group directly connected to the Life Springs Church on Keller-Andrews Road in Sanford.

The Foundation, which claims 39,000 members across the country, claims to exist “to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.” The letter, written by staff attorney Christopher Line, was generated following a report from “a concerned Lee County resident.”

The three-page communication recounts much of the history of the church’s attempts over a period of six months to gain the requisite approvals from federal and state agencies to achieve tax-exempt status. Those permissions would have to be in place before the county could make the award to Life Springs and the church has said it will apply again when the necessary documentation has been received.

“We write to remind the Board that this type of church funding is unconstitutional and the grant should never have been approved in the first place,” Line wrote. “Government funds cannot be given away to churches in order to help advance their religious mission.”

The commissioners suspended their own rules on November 14 and approved the grant by a vote of 6-1 without taking the recommendation of then-County Manager Dr. John Crumpton to study the proposal and vote later. Democrat Robert Reives Sr. was the only commissioner to vote against making the grant that night.

At another meeting several weeks later, the two remaining Democratic commissioners, Mark Lovick and Cameron Sharpe, said publicly that they, too, could no longer support Life Springs’ efforts to obtain the money.

Line wrote his letter was “to remind the Board that this type of church funding is unconstitutional, and the grant should never have been approved in the first place. Government funds cannot be given away to churches in order to help advance their religious missions.”

The LSAT’s board of directors consists exclusively of members from the church and its proposal to the commissioners for funding spoke of its work in meeting the “spiritual” needs of families it works with.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was formed in 1976 and has been active in the years since by becoming involved in legal challenges across the country that center around issues concerning the principle of separation of church and state. It has successfully challenged the legitimacy of a long listing of federal and state programs that are faith-based in nature.

It’s unknown at this point whether the commissioners will give consideration to this or any other veiled threat to sue over their action to fund the Life Springs Dream Center proposal. Recent history, though, suggests that they may just decide to ride it out.

Commissioners faced a similar threat in September 2021 over the redrawing of the county’s electoral districts. At the time, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham pointed out the potential for legal action against the county. The commissioners ignored the letter, and no lawsuit was ever filed.

With Republicans now in control of much of the state’s court systems, including the North Carolina Supreme Court, the Foundation’s chances of prevailing in a case against the county are not as strong as they might have been even six months ago.

But even a few rounds of action and potential appeals could erode the time before the deadline for obligating the county’s remaining allotment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which is the last day of 2024. And the commissioners would have to decide how much county funding they’d be willing to put toward court costs.