FONDA - Officials from the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs have turned down a $750 tourism grant from Montgomery County to help pay for the canonization ceremony of Kateri Tekakwitha.
The county Board of Supervisors awarded the grant in February, one of several given to area agencies to promote tourism. County officials believe as many as 5,000 people will come to Auriesville for the ceremony conferring sainthood on Kateri, a member of the Mohawk tribe who was born in 1656 near present-day Auriesville. The ceremony is scheduled for Oct. 21 at the shrine.
The grant was part of $11,600 awarded to agencies throughout the county to promote tourism. As soon as the award to the shrine was announced, officials from the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State began contacting local officials and telling them the grant violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which is widely interpreted to maintain the separation of church and state.
At a meeting of the county's Economic Development and Planning Committee earlier this month, Amsterdam 2nd Ward Supervisor Jeff Stark offered a resolution changing the language of the original proposal, adding the words, "no public money in the form of the tourism grant [shall] be used for sectarian purposes" and "all grant money ... shall be used for valid, secular purposes." That resolution remains on the agenda for the full board of supervisors to consider at its meeting Tuesday.
Shrine spokeswoman Beth Lynch said Friday the grant was initially accepted, but the new conditions made it impossible to take the money.
"We did not initially turn down the grant, but we can't sign the addendum," shrine spokeswoman Beth Lynch said Friday. "We can't sign anything with those conditions. We're not a secular organization. We are who we are, and we're not going to compromise, dilute or disintegrate that."
Stark said his resolution was intended to assure that the county did not violate the Constitution.
"There was language already in the grant resolution [that referred to secular purposes], but it didn't go as far as my resolution to modify it," he said.
Stark said he appreciated the shrine's position.
"They're proud, and they are who they are," he said. "I applaud them for sticking up for their values."
Stark said he hoped the controversy is over.
"I hope that ends the matter, and everyone can be satisfied," he said. "That's what makes America specials. We can all have different opinions."
Charleston Supervisor Shayne T. Walters, chairman of the board of supervisors, said the whole situation made him sad.
"The shrine's mission is to promote Catholicism," he said. "To say it's tourism related, they didn't feel it was good to take the money."
Walters still believes the canonization will be a boon to tourism in the county.
"It's interesting," he said. "Everybody who goes through the [shrine's] gift shop pays sales tax on what they buy. It's sad, because more and more people each day were writing to say they supported our position."
Walters said it wouldn't have mattered what religion was represented.
"I wouldn't care if it was a temple, a mosque or whatever," he said.
John R. Becker covers Montgomery County news. He can be reached at email@example.com