April 2009 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United has written to officials in Carson City, Nev., warning them not to award tax money to a church that has a tenuous connection to famous writer Mark Twain.

The Carson City supervisors voted recently to give $78,800 in tax funds to the First Presbyterian Church, which was built in the 1860s. The Nevada Appeal reported that the money “is intended to pay for work the church did on new sidewalks, landscaping and roofing” and to preserve the church.

Church leaders have been grappling with various structural problems and in 2005 even proposed tearing down the facility, arguing that it had become unsafe and too small for the congregation. City officials balked and instead proposed a funding arrangement.

But attorneys with Americans United say the city is off base. They wrote to city officials, pointing out that they are in violation of the law. AU’s letter notes that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Nevada, struck down church funding in a similar 2007 case from Idaho; it also cites several Supreme Court rulings.

Local officials insist that aid to the church is permissible because it’s a form of redevelopment, and they point to the historic nature of the church.

Mayor Bob Crowell told the Appeal the money is “a benefit to all of Carson City and not just the church.” Supervisor Pete Livermore was even more combative, telling the newspaper, “Just because someone on the East Coast writes you a letter doesn’t mean we’re going to jump through a bunch of goddamn hoops.”

The Associated Press reported that Twain helped raise money to build the church in 1864. Twain raised about $200 by charging admission to an event roasting Nevada legislators in Carson City. At the time, Twain was working as a reporter in nearby Virginia City, and his brother was a member of the church.

AU attorneys say this is irrelevant and assert that there are no court rulings that give government a right to rehabilitate or rebuild houses of worship, even old structures.

“It seems to be a very clear constitutional violation,” AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser told the AP. “The First Amendment mandates separation of church and state. Public funds can’t be used to support religious activity directly or indirectly.”

Ironically, Twain was no fan of entanglement between religion and government. Raised a Presbyterian, he celebrated liberty and poked fun at those who seemed to take their faith a little too seriously.

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a Twain character says it is his conviction that “any Established Church is an established crime, an established slave-pen.”

“Concentration of power in a political machine is bad,” the book observes, “and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.”