The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors has approved a grant of $750 to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs, known as the Auriesville Shrine, to go toward the celebration in October of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha.
It was one of 15 tourism grants approved at the board’s most recent meeting, on Feb. 28. Other grants went to the Strawberry Festival, the Riverlink Park Summer Series, the Renaissance Fair and other purely secular events and organizations. The shrine had asked for $2,500.
I asked the county attorney, Doug Landon, if he saw any problem with the grant possibly violating the constitutional bar against the establishment of religion — I mean, giving taxpayer money to a strictly religious organization for a strictly religious celebration.
And I had in mind the Supreme Court decision of 1947, in which Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority, “No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called,” which came in response to a dispute about school buses for parochial schools.
“It’s an interesting point,” he said. “It’s certainly something to consider … I would certainly want to take a look at it to see if in fact an issue is created by that.” He allowed that he had seen the list of grantees in the board’s resolution but said he had not “scrutinized” it. And what’s more, “No one asked specifically about that.”
There’s no question about the nature of the shrine. It’s under the direction of a Jesuit priest, and the North American Martyrs Society that it’s in the process of forming has for its stated purpose, “To promote knowledge and veneration of the North American Martyrs … and to emulate their faithfulness to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, and their witness to a non-believing culture.” It ain’t no hospital.
What’s the big idea of giving public money to it to assist in the celebration of a new saint taking her seat in the heavens?
One taxpayer wrote to the board for an explanation, citing Thomas Jefferson’s prescription for a “wall of separation between church and state,” and got this answer from the board’s chairman, Shayne Walters: “Many Christian or Catholic organizations are funded by public monies. That being said, the interpretation of Jefferson is as broad as the country. We make no laws to govern religion but we pledge One Nation Under God, our currency states In God We Trust, and in court we swear on the Bible. Our country was founded on faith in God that Jefferson and our forefathers were fully aware of.”
I would have quoted to him Jefferson’s argument against a Virginia tax to support clergymen: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical,” but I doubt if it would have done any good.
Even the New York Civil Liberties Union is unsure, surprisingly enough. Melanie Trimble, director of the Albany chapter, says, “It certainly raises concerns that a public entity would help fund a purely religious event. We’re concerned about the establishment issues,” referring to the establishment of religion, but she also says, “If they make the argument it’s a tourism grant” — which is what it’s called — “that might be a valid point.”
There’s not much doubt that the celebration of a Mohawk Valley saint will draw visitors to Montgomery County.
But she wonders, “Would the Montgomery County board of supervisors fund a Muslim organization if they asked? We would caution them because of future decisions they might have to make.”
Me, I hate the casualness with which government entities blend their duties with the sectarian efforts of religious groups, whether it’s inscribing religious slogans on our coins, praying at the beginning of city council meetings or, worst of all, flat-out giving our money to a church to celebrate something as otherworldly as the elevation of a spirit to a place “before the throne of God,” as the Vatican phases it.
“Sinful and tyrannical” sums it up, imposing even a small part of the cost of such doings on the general public.
If I lived in Montgomery County I’d ask for a refund, tourism or no tourism. If you want tourism, put the hot air in balloons and have a balloon festival, I’d say.