- Photo by David Rolland
There are a few key plot points that differ in the case of Green Oak Ranch Ministries in Vista, which needed more than $20,000 in safety repairs and retrofits in 2010. The summer-camp property, which is owned and operated by a church and serves mostly other churches, was bailed-out not with pirate treasure or a lost will located by a rag-tag band of plucky tweens.
The camp’s facilities—including 24 cabins, a pool and a kitchen—were saved with government grant money.
The Aug. 2 decision by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to retroactively authorize the funding raises questions regarding the management of the county’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Program and the separation of church and state. It’s also a victory for Supervisor Bill horn, who has on multiple occasions earmarked subsidies for Christian organizations.
In 2006 and 2007, at horn’s request, the county approved $95,000 in funds for Green Oak Ranch’s Big Band Bash by the Sea, a music festival and fundraiser held in Oceanside to benefit multiple charities. However, the organization failed to file timely reports explaining how it spent the money, and its name appeared three times on delinquency lists. It became one of several organizations highlighted by The San Diego Union-Tribune for receiving grant money that had not been documented properly. The organizations listed received more than $550,000.At the time of the initial grants, the group was a registered nonprofit that filed IRS disclosures; it has since redefined itself formally as a church and stopped filing the forms in 2009. Green Oak Ranch Chairman Carl Fielstra tells CityBeat that the church was asked to be the fiscal agent for the Bash and collected a blanket fee, including a markup, for providing food services at the event. Fielstra said he later learned this was an impermissible use of the money when the county asked the church to document and itemize its expenses. Three years later, Green Oak Ranch found it had a balance of $21,000.
Rather than return the funds, Green Oak Ranch asked to apply the money retroactively to improvements made to its camp facilities right before filing its report. These projects included reroofing 24 cabins that suffered “major damage” from termite infestation, retrofitting a pool drain and a pool chemical system and replacing the fire-suppression system in its food-service areas.
Horn’s office explained via email: “Because Neighborhood Reinvestment grants are funded by taxpayer dollars, it is in the County’s best interest that nonprofits use the grants for the greatest public good. This means that sometimes an organization may find a better use for the grant after it has been approved.”
Supervisor Dianne Jacob was more cautious, telling CityBeat via a prepared statement: “Keeping in mind that many nonprofits exist with shoestring budgets and piecemeal funding, I gave this organization the benefit of the doubt, knowing that the County is more closely scrutinizing documentation after a program overhaul initiated by Supervisor Cox and me. I do have some reservations about this organization’s ability to provide documentation in a timely manner because of its prior history and plan to keep an eye on these allocations.”
Last year, CityBeat uncovered another grant championed by horn that would have paid for a fundraiser for religious educational materials for private schools. After the report, the county cancelled the grant, finding that it would have violated the law. Subsequently, the board approved tighter restrictions for grant money, including a formal ban on grants for religious purposes.
Fielstra said the church picked the four capital expenses after the county asked it to identify projects that were separate from religious activities. But Christian groups are benefitting most from the improved retreat facilities at Green Oak Ranch.
On its website, Green Oak Ranch describes itself as a church and a “healing community under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” This year alone, Green Oak Ranch is hosting religious camps and retreats for at least 14 different church organizations. The day the board approved the grant amendment, the Los Altos Grace Brethren Church was holding its annual camp for kids in first through seventh grades. This year’s theme was “God’s Promises”; photos of the event, including a “worship circle” beneath a large cross, are viewable at lagbc.org.
David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, says the county’s decision to approve the funding violates the separation of church and state as articulated in the California Constitution.
“This is not a new issue,” Blair-Loy says via email. “Almost 90 years ago, the California Court of Appeals held that the No Aid Clause prohibited the state from directly appropriating money to restore the San Diego Mission. The same principles control this case. In California, state and local government may not give money directly to religious organizations for restoration of their property or any other purpose.”
County Counsel Tom Montgomery stands by the grant, claiming that it doesn’t support religious purposes because religious activities do not occur in pools, cabins and food-service areas. Without actual worship, he says, it is not a religious activity.
That was the second explanation provided to CityBeat. At first, county officials claimed that the money was spent on improvements to a building used for the Child Assessment Network North program, which provides county-contracted medical evaluations to foster kids and “is completely separate from religious activities that take place on the ranch.” This wasn’t corroborated by any documentation provided to CityBeat. Montgomery later conceded that the repairs were made to other areas of the camp but stated that the foster-kids program was taken into consideration in his approval of the grant. No connection between the grant and the Child Assessment program appeared in agenda materials prior to the Aug. 2 vote.
“Yes, we are a religious group, but there are many things we do that are completely void of any religious activity,” Fielstra says. “A cabin’s a cabin regardless of if it’s a religious person or an atheist sleeping in it.”
Asked whether non-Christian groups, including Muslims and Jews, have used the facility, Fielstra says, “I can’t tell you names, and I can’t tell you when, but we have.”
Pat Libby, director of the University of San Diego’s Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, tells CityBeat she has mixed feelings about Green Oak Ranch. She says the county shouldn’t be handing money to organizations that don’t file public disclosures with the IRS, but she notes that though Green Oak Ranch no longer files these forms, it did at the time of the initial grant. She disagrees to an extent with the ACLU’s position about grants to religious organizations (USD is a Catholic university); however, she agrees Green Oak Ranch could have handled the money more responsibly.
“That being said, it’s a relatively small amount of money and the reallocation of the money happens to be in keeping with the new county guidelines that have an emphasis on capital improvements,” Libby says.