Shrine Settlement: NY Religious Site Won’t Take Taxpayer Aid

Churches are not the same as museums, sports stadiums and amusement parks. They are centers of worship. As such, they don’t qualify for taxpayer-funded bailouts.

Americans United’s legal staff endeavors to resolve church-state conflicts outside of court whenever possible. Today I’m happy to report on one of those victories.

In late March, Americans United received a complaint from Montgomery County, N.Y., concerning the Board of Supervisor’s plan to give a $750 grant to a shrine in Fultonville. The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is dedicated to Kateri Tekakwitha, a member of the Mohawk tribe who converted to Catholicism in the 17th Century. 

Tekakwitha has been declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI and will be officially canonized on Oct. 21. The shrine is planning a number of events to mark the occasion, and they’re all religious in nature. For example, several Catholic masses and a special service seeking healing for the sick will be held.

Americans United pointed out that tax funds could not underwrite these religious events. Our attorneys asked that the grant be cancelled.

The supervisors did not react well to Americans United’s letter. In fact, Board Chairman Shayne Walters vowed to award the grant and said of AU, “They can go fly a kite.”

No kite flying will be necessary. Officials at the shrine have turned down the grant. Board member Jeff Stark had proposed modifying the grant to make it clear that only secular activities could be funded, but it became obvious pretty quickly that this would not be possible. There aren’t any secular activities at the shrine.

Beth Lynch of the shrine told a local newspaper, “We did not initially turn down the grant, but we can’t sign the addendum. We can’t sign anything with those conditions. We’re not a secular organization. We are who we are, and we’re not going to compromise, dilute or disintegrate that.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The shrine’s website is full of religious references and outlines in great detail the religious activities that will take place during the canonization ceremony. No one wants to take that away from the shrine’s fans; we just don’t believe local taxpayers, who represent a variety of religious and non-religious views, should have to pay for it.

This issue has come up in some other areas of the country in recent years. For a long time, the practice in the United States was that houses of worship would pay their own way. When they needed upkeep and repair, they would look to their congregants for that money, not the taxpayer.

Some misguided religious leaders are departing from that standard. They argue that their churches are historic and thus qualify as tourist attractions. They see no problem with the taxpayer at large being asked to pay to repair and preserve these facilities.

The problem is that churches are not the same as museums, sports stadiums and amusement parks. They are centers of worship. As such, they don’t qualify for taxpayer-funded bailouts.

I get the impression that the supporters of the shrine are excited about the upcoming canonization. In light of that, I’m confident that they will supply all of the necessary funds to put on this event.

Asking the taxpayer to pick up even part of the tab just isn’t right, and I’m pleased that officials at the shrine understand that.