Town will accept religious groups as sponsors for events

Religious By Alexandra Herrera, Reporter Wednesday, January 31, 2024

     The Miami Lakes town council did not accept the advice of the deputy town attorney and voted to allow religious organizations to sponsor municipal events.

     “Years ago…the best Easter egg hunt we’ve ever had in town history was sponsored by a local church,” Mayor Manny Cid said at the Jan. 16 council meeting.     

     He described how plastic eggs with goodies inside fell from a helicopter over Veterans Park to kids waiting below, and the Easter Bunny appeared. 

     “Unfortunately, they can’t do it again because of the rules,” Cid said. 

      In 2021, Sec. 13-2107 of town code was created to say in part that Miami Lakes will not accept as sponsors: houses of worship and religious organizations, or companies whose primary businesses are selling tobacco or alcohol, pornography or erotic material or weapons; or political candidates or partisan organizations.

     The Constitution’s “separation of church and state means that the Town of Miami Lakes will never have an official religion, [but] it doesn’t take away a religious organization’s First Amendment right to participate or even have our committee as an option say, ‘I’d love to have you as a sponsor,’” Cid said. 

     Cid said he discussed the issue with a member of the Youth Activities Task Force, which puts on the Easter Egg Hunt, also called the Spring Fling. 

     “In hindsight, it never should have been put in [the code],” Cid said.

     Councilman Luis Collazo asked whether the committees could pick and choose from religious organizations or deny one group’s wish to participate. 

     “The reason that we created this sponsorship ordinance was to give order as to how sponsors are picked and so that there was a uniform process,” Deputy Town Attorney Lorenzo Cobiella said. 

     “We excluded certain organizations that we can find to be troublesome from that list.

     “When you’re including a church or religious organization ...  if you allow one you should allow others to participate. 

     “If you don’t, that’s what’s called viewpoint discrimination,” Cobiella said.  

     While the town, its dozen volunteer committees and boards can exclude businesses from underwriting events, if the ban was lifted, they could not exclude religious organizations, even if a group’s message doesn’t align with that of the organizers or the town. 

     Cobiella called it “a slippery slope.” 

     The town also cannot keep a list of approved religious organizations that would be allowed to sponsor events, he said. 

     Councilman Josh Dieguez said that by approving this change, the town would be opening itself up to allow all religious organizations to become sponsors. 

     “The issue here is not whether Our Lady of the Lakes wants to sponsor something, it’s whether the Church of Babalu in Hialeah or the Church of Satan of Miami-Dade County or whatever wants to sponsor something,” Dieguez said. 

     Dieguez, who is an attorney, echoed Cobiella’s comments and said that by turning away any church that has a sincerely held belief that the town or committee members didn’t like, the town would be committing viewpoint discrimination against a religious organization. 

     Councilman Ray Garcia asked what the consequences could be.

     “When you’re opening up that avenue … you then open yourself up to having that possibility where you’re going to have to say no to one of these organizations and when you do that … you could possibly open the town up to some kind of liability,” Cobiella said. “Why? Because then the town is saying yes to one and no to someone else. … It’s not a hypothetical, [lawsuits] have happened.” 

     To avoid being sued, municipalities including Miami Lakes have excluded religious organizations from sponsoring events. 

     The council voted to pass Cid’s motion; Councilwoman Marilyn Ruano voted against it and Collazo was not present on the dais for the vote. 

     The attorneys will present a revised section of the code for the council to approve at its February meeting.