Carson City, Nevada’s decision to fund sidewalks, landscaping and roof repairs for a church that Mark Twain helped build has prompted protests and the threat of a lawsuit from a group that advocates strict separation of church and state.
Last month, Carson City supervisors voted to give the city’s First Presbyterian Church $78,800 for the sidewalks, landscaping and roof repairs, the Associated Press reports. In 2006, the city gave the church $67,700 to help with design costs for a new church building adjacent to the old one.
City and church officials say the money addresses additional costs resulting from an agreement that the congregation would not raze the original church but instead build a new one.
The Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State protested the decision. If the supervisors do not rescind their votes, the group will consider a lawsuit, Americans United attorney Alex Luchenitser said.
"It seems to be a very clear constitutional violation," he told the Associated Press. "The First Amendment mandates separation of church and state. Public funds can't be used to support religious activity directly or indirectly."
City officials said the money is designed to save the historic brick church, not support religious activity.
Luchenitser said Americans United was “quite confident” it would prevail, based on other legal precedents.
The group will reportedly give the city a chance to respond to its Thursday letter and then consider its options if the city does not change its decision.
The church’s pastor, Bruce Kochsmeier, said that the city’s money is “minimal compensation” for the church having to revise its plans. He argued the money benefits all residents.
"Doesn't the door swing both ways? Wasn't it a violation when we weren't allowed to tear down our building?" Kochsmeier asked. "Wasn't that right of religious expression being squelched?"