ETC

August 18, 2011

The 2010 flap over separation of church and state at the Western Montana Fair seemed largely forgotten last weekend. The rodeo riding, hog judging, derby car demolishing and cotton candy eating all went off without a religious hitch.

Yet the fair did raise a few eyebrows.

Organizers avoided the mistakes that last year prompted Wisconsin's Freedom From Religion Foundation to file a discrimination complaint with Missoula County. Instead of offering free fair admission to attendees of the Missoula Christian Network's Sunday service, the fair simply declared Sunday "Family Day" and gave everyone free admission. Missoula County charged the service organizers rent for the grandstands. Those non-theists from the Midwest still intend to investigate the rent payment, but any repeat crisis was averted.

The only real church vs. state hackles raised were over at the Missoula County Employees Council's third annual fair booth. The council served breakfast burritos, hosted its Messy Eater Contest and introduced visitors to the loveable mascot likes of Monte, Slash and Smokey the Bear—all innocuous fair fare. As in the past, the council split its profits 50-50 with a local nonprofit. The lucky recipient this year? Faith-based women's outreach group Teen Challenge, which last September brought Sarah Palin to Missoula for a speech on family, the feds and God.

But the council's vote to benefit a faith-based organization is not a plug for church by state, and here's why: They aren't a county entity. The council raises money through raffles, bake sales and its fair booth to help county employees. They host an annual county employee picnic, pitch in money for medically distressed coworkers, and in recent years have broadened their efforts to the community level.

"We didn't pick Teen Challenge because of the fact that they're faith-based," says council president and Missoula County Justice Court lead clerk Denise Donahue. "We picked them [because] they help with kids in Missoula County who deal with drug addiction. It was not an issue because we're not part of the county."

That argument fell flat with two folks at the fair who voiced frustrations about a county-related group sharing proceeds with a Christian organization. And the booth's promotional flyer blurred the line a bit by including the Missoula County logo opposite a note about the Teen Challenge donation—an oversight, perhaps, but ultimately a harmless one.

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