A Washington-based nonprofit is demanding that Montgomery County take back a $750 tourism grant awarded to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs.
In a letter Friday to county supervisors, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, founded in 1947, contends the grant violates the U.S. Constitution.
“Because the use of government funds to support religious worship violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we write to ask that the board rescind the grant and that the board refrain from funding religious activity in the future,” states the letter, signed by Americans United representative Benjamin N. Hazelwood.
Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shayne Walters said he has no intention of pulling back the money.
“They can go fly a kite,” he said Friday.
The grant is one of 18 the supervisors approved in late February from the Local Tourism Grant Program.
The money is collected through a 4 percent occupancy tax added to bills on lodging facilities, often called a “bed tax.”
The county approved a total of $11,600 in grants ranging from $200 for a program from the Historic Amsterdam League focusing on the history of the city’s South Side to $1,500 for the Montgomery County Farm Bureau to support its Sundae on the Farm event.
The $750 approved for the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is aimed at supporting the site’s celebration of the upcoming canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, who will become the first Native American saint.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the amount of money doesn’t matter. He said the county faces the possibility of legal action by any resident concerned with the expenditure.
“Local taxpayers have a right to ensure that their local governments don’t spend their tax money unlawfully,” he said.
Walters said the grant has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with an effort to bring in tourists who will spend money at gas stations, Thruway rest areas and local eateries, which will generate sales tax revenue for the cash-strapped county.
“They bring in more people, the two shrines, than anything else in the entire county,” he said.
Both the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville — often called the Auriesville Shrine — and the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha are located in Montgomery County.
Before being developed into a shrine by the Jesuit New York Province of the Society of Jesus, it was the site of a Mohawk Indian community visited by missionaries in the 1600s.
Walters said it’s a historical treasure that deserves support as it relates to tourism.
“This is part of our history as well,” he said.
In the letter, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says the Auriesville Shrine is a place of worship for Catholics where Mass has been held since 1885.
And many of the events planned to celebrate Tekakwitha’s sainthood, the group contends, will involve religious worship, including a celebration of Tekakwitha’s July 14 feast day, which will include Mass at the shrine’s coliseum.
Luchenitser said the organization gets reports on a regular basis of public funding going to religious organizations, and the governments responsible often suggest the money is not being used for religious activities.
“Here it doesn’t even seem like there’s any viable defense along these lines. We hope that the county comes to its senses and revokes this grant,” he said.
Efforts to reach a spokesperson for the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs were unsuccessful Friday.