November 2012 Church & State | People & Events


Officials with the National Park Service agreed to remove a Buddhist shrine from a site in New Mexico after receiving a letter from Americans United asking that the religious symbol be relocated.

Americans United wrote to Park Service officials July 20 about the structure, known as a stupa, on the grounds of Petroglyph National Monument Park near Albuquerque. In its letter, AU noted that stupas are used for burials and other religious ceremonies and that the structures seek to remind Buddhists of what one religious scholar called “the impermanence of life.”

“Here, there is no indication that the stupa has any secular significance, conveys anything other than a Buddhist religious message, or is used for anything other than Buddhist rituals,” observed AU’s letter.

The stupa, a nine-foot tall white structure, had formerly been on private property. But the owners sold the land to the federal government in 1990 and left the stupa behind. Two years ago, a group of Park Service employees called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility requested that the structure be moved.

The Park Service referred the matter to the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office, which conducted an investigation and determined that the stupa did indeed have a religious purpose. Before it could be moved, however, the Park Service had to do an environmental study to make certain that the site wouldn’t suffer damage. The structure sat near the parking lot of the park, which includes a series of 700-year-old rock carvings made by Native Americans.

The Park Service agreed that the structure should not sit on federal land but did not want to tear the stupa down, since it is considered sacred to Buddhists. They worked with a local Buddhist group, which agreed to take the structure. 

In September, the stupa was moved to private property about 20 miles away. Park Service funds were used to dig up the stupa but not to transport it to its new home.

“The Buddhists are actually paying for it to be moved to the other side of town,” Diane Souder, a Park Service spokesperson, told KRQE-TV in Albuquerque.