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Developer Wants Catholic Views to Rule in Florida Town


There is a struggle brewing in Southwest Florida over abortion, contraceptives and a new town being built around a Catholic university. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza, is bankrolling the project. A devout Catholic, Monaghan wants the community to exemplify his strict conservative values. Amy Tardiff of member station WGCU in Fort Myers has this report.

AMY TARDIFF reporting:

Tom Monaghan is building a European inspired dream on what were tomato fields east of Naples, Florida. A 100-foot tall cathedral and what planners call the largest crucifix in the nation will greet people as they enter the new town of Avia Maria and the university of the same name. At last month's groundbreaking Monaghan spelled out his vision.

Mr. TOM MONAGHAN (Founder, Domino's Pizza): We were able to build a town that would be conducive to family living and a safe town and a wholesome town.

TARDIFF: Avia Maria is the first Roman Catholic university to be built in the United States in 40 years. Florida Governor Jeb Bush stood my Monaghan' side and touted plans for affordable housing and a workable community.

Governor JEB BUSH (Republican, Florida): These are the kinds of projects that we have really provided incentives for and encouraged people to do so I think it will be a model for sustainable living not just for Florida but the country.

TARDIFF: Others worry about Avia Maria and Monaghan's definition of a wholesome town conducive to family living. He's personally footing most of the construction costs. He'll have oversight over the commercial real estate and he's asking his developer partner to favor drug stores which agree not to carry contraceptives. Avia Maria project manager and developer Blake Gable says it's a request, not a requirement.

Mr. BLAKE GABLE (Developer): We haven't restricted the sale of contraceptives but we've asked that the retailers in deference to the university and what they're trying to accomplish, you know, consider refraining from selling contraceptives.

TARDIFF: Contraceptives may also be an issue when the Naples Community Hospital builds a clinic in the town. It's been asked not to give contraceptives to students or make abortion referrals. The head of the local Planned Parenthood, Char Wendell, says that's unfair.

Ms. CHAR WENDELL (Head, Planned Parenthood): The majority of Americans use birth control, and to make it difficult for people in that community to get birth control is putting an undue burden on people controlling their own reproductive health.

TARDIFF: Wendell doesn't have to look beyond her office window to see what may be coming.

Avia Maria students have protested, prayed and handed out literature at her Planned Parenthood chapter since a temporary university campus opened a year ago. On a recent Thursday night a half dozen students kneeled on the sidewalk, clutched rosaries and sang quietly. Eighteen year old Brandon Ford of San Francisco led the group.

Mr. BRANDON FORD (Student): I think that condoms are not helpful at all. So any encouragement to using condoms, using any sort of contraception is bad, and we shouldn't encourage that.

TARDIFF: The American Civil Liberties Union is paying close attention to the developments at Avia Maria. The Florida director of the ACLU, Howard Simon, has been visiting Naples to set up a local chapter to monitor the situation. Simon says he fears Monaghan may not stop with contraceptives.

Mr. HOWARD SIMON (Florida Director of ACLU): I think it is rather naive to think that this first request that pharmacies not sell birth control pills will become the last request and that these requests themselves will not turn into eventually legal requirements and therein lies the problem.

TARDIFF: Simon says religious organizations cannot exercise governmental power. But Avia Maria University President Nick Healey(ph) is trying to ease concerns. He says it may be Tom Monaghan's vision to have a devote Catholic town with no pornography, no contraceptives and no abortions, but this vision won't necessarily become a reality.

President NICK HEALEY (Avia Maria University): Tom Monaghan speaks very candidly from the heart and he often expresses his hopes and aspirations which are not always something that can be accomplished when you're in a major real estate development with partners who have to be concerned about commercial realities and legal realities and so forth.

TARDIFF: Avia Maria will be ready for residents to move in next spring with the campus opening that fall. The first condominium units went up for sale last week. For NPR News I'm Amy Tardiff in Fort Myers, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Tardiff
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