Letter to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors

March 7, 2012

Montgomery County Board of Supervisors

County Annex Building P.O. Box 1500 Fonda, New York 12068

I was very dismayed today when I read an article in the March 7th edition of The Leader Herald entitled County to Distribute Tourism Funds. In the article it was stated that the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors voted to award taxpayer money to the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs for a Catholic canonization ceremony. Although the amount was minor ($750), it violates the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.

The US Supreme Court in the 1947 ruling Everson v. Board of Education interpreted this as meaning financial support. In the ruling, Justice Hugo Black stated (in part):

No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State”.

While I understand the intention as was to promote tourism, it crosses a line established by the Federal government.

From their website http://www.martyrshrine.org/ we learn that The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs is clearly a Catholic organization owned and run by the North American Martyrs Society who’s stated purpose is:

To promote knowledge and veneration of the North American Martyrs…and to emulate to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and their witness to a non-believing culture.

The Director of the North American Martyr Society is Fr. George Belgarde, S.J. (a Jesuit Priest) and the Staff consists of Fr. Robert McGuire, S.J. and four lay people. This is clearly not a secular purpose for government funding.

I respectfully request that the resolution approved to allocate this money to the Catholic organization be rescinded.

Sincerely,

Gerald J. Skrocki

Update #1:

Yesterday I received the following response from the Chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.

Update #2:

Dan Weaver wants some of the attention but refuses to post my name, the name of my blog or any of my comments on his online publication:

Of course there was no problem with verifying my identity. I would have respected his right not to post my comment at all, but to compound the situation with an outright lie discredits Weaver’s publication.

Update #3:

The legal team from Americans United for Separation of Church and State send a letter to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors.

Update #4:

The Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs declines the grant from the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. From an article published in the Recorder, written by reporter Heather Nellis, the Shrine event coordinator Beth Lynch states:

“We are what we are — a highly visible and deeply Catholic entity. We’re glad that we can contribute to the economy as far as tourism is concerned, but that’s not our main focus — we are a Catholic shrine, and we’re not going to agree that we have to do something on secular terms.”

This is exactly the point I have been trying to convey all along. No secular purpose = no public funding.

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24 thoughts on “Letter to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors

  1. Alayne

    At this point Jerry, the County should not be allocating ANY FUNDS to anything that is NOT MANDATED!

  2. Rob Millan

    Yes, I agree no County money should be used for this religious organization.  Additionally, neither the County nor the State should provide police protection to this and all religious organizations because such a service would counter-indicate the separation between church and state.  These sanctuaries shall not receive so much as a dime of taxpayer monies, either directly or through a public service.
     
    I also implore the County and State to go on a site-by-site jaunt throughout the land to de-designate and remove state and national historic site status to any and all religiously affiliated places, like the synagogue on Mohawk Place in Amsterdam, so that they may not qualify for grant monies in order to maintain their beauty and attractiveness.
     
    No, but seriously, just kidding.
     
    Not that I totally disagree, but I don’t think Everson v Board (1947) is the best opinion to apply to this example; and it appears that Black’s opinion is misapplied here in that it was established that this ‘wall of separation’ included, as you quote, ‘any tax’, and mentions nothing about grant monies, as applied to the instant case.  There is an inherent difference between the two which should not go ignored.

    • The term “grant” is included in the BOS resolution but I was informed by Supervisor Chiara that the money used for the tourism awards actually came from the County bed tax on hotels as well as bed & breakfast establishments.

      If this organization had any humanitarian purpose aside from promoting the Catholic faith I wouldn’t mind. Religious organizations that run secular homeless shelters, soup kitchens or medical clinics should be able to get some government funding. A celebration of a 2012 religious ritual magically transforming a Native American girl who died of smallpox over 200 years ago to a Catholic Saint does not qualify. The ironic part of this is that the Catholic missionaries forced their religious beliefs on the Native Americans and were probably themselves carriers of the smallpox virus that was responsible for the girl’s death.

      The 1947 decision is relevant in this case in that it was the first to establish the 1st Amendment religious provisions apply to State and local governments.

  3. John

    I agree completely.

  4. robert purtell

    My selfish behavior says I am not concerned about the funding and the relationship with the Catholic church, In the event that any Protestant, Evangelical, Morman, Hebrew, Buddhist, Atheist, Methodist or anybody else benifits from someone coming to Montgomery county to visit the shrine and spending money and paying sales tax, then, I am ok with the county distributing a portion of the tourism funds.

    • The problem is not just that the funding is unconstitutional, but that it is selectively supporting a specific religion. Money spent at the shrine is not taxable since it has a religious exemption. The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors has not supported the Buddhists in their effort to increase tourism through their vision to create a City of peace and health. The WPHO spent thousands of dollars at local merchants and pay property tax and utility fees on their properties that are not tax exempt. Not to mention the $60,000 that the Amsterdam School District kept when the purchase of the Bacon School fell through due to the property squabble over who owned the access road originally included in the deal, later determined to be the property of the City.

      I feel the tax money given to the Shrine is illegal and representative of the biased religious beliefs of the Board members. Do you really think an Atheist group has any remote chance at receiving funding from the MCBOS?

      This latest move by the MCBOS opens the proverbial Pandora’s box and should be rescinded.

      • robert purtell

        A couple of things, I am not concerened about selling religous articles, I would expect that motels would benefit, as well as gasoline sales, food sales, repair facilities etc. This should be an improvement in tourism in our county.
        I am sure that if the Buddhist came up with a comprehensive idea to boost tourism, they would have the support of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors also.
        I am also not so confident that the Buddhist did not get their 60k back, but I cannot comment on that because of my involvemnt in the transaction.
        I respect your thoughts,
        Thanks for the discussion.

        • Bob, I know for a fact they did not get their deposit back. The Amsterdam Assessor Calvin Cline also arbitrarily decided to put two of their buildings back on the tax roll after declaring them religious tax exempt last year and also increasing the assessments for the buildings. The City also fined them $6,000. for not clearing their properties fast enough, after the same properties sat with the same garbage and filth for years when they were owned by the City. The WPHO is now represented by Attorney Paul Goldman who is currently working on the property issues.

  5. Don Diehl

    I thought the world peace organization pulled the plug on the school deal due to their perception that their properties were being targeted due to their religious beliefs/race and they felt that the police force wasn’t being effective in protecting their properties? And yes I agree the BOS should not spend a dime of taxpayer dollars on the shrine or any other non-profit for that matter.

    • No Don, it was a combination of factors that started when they were denied the purchase of the Guy Park Ave School even though they offered the higher bid. When they were told the across road was no longer part of the Beacon School deal, they backed out.

  6. Shout out to Daily Gazette Columnist Carl Strock for printing my story in the Sunday Edition!
    http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2012/mar/11/0311_strock/

  7. carol jordan

    I might be coming in late on the conversation, but her is my 2 cents worth….:)
    Carol Jordan….Amsterdam, NY – Christian….Pro-life…Republican…for what that is worth.

    The County should always look at who they are helping in the end, and how the property is being used, and who it benefits monetarily. Will the Shrine be housing the homeless? Will they have a food pantry? Will they give a portion of the income from tourists to LOCAL charities, even those NOT affiliated with the Catholic church? If any of these are fulfilled, then it is ok with me. A religious organization is a religious organization…period… and should not receive public monies, unless it is beneficial to the WHOLE community, not just the TOURISM industry.

    The Shrine is clearly a Catholic religious institution, but those who come visit it do have to stay in local hotels, but the same could be said for those who come to visit any tourist site. Should we give money to the local businesses, like the Wrestling Hall of Fame, etc.., just because they “help” tourism…”NO !” . God clearly doesn’t like mixing business with pleasure as he clearly showed when he turned over the tables in the temple. Jesus Clears the Temple

    Matthew 21…
    12Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”

    The site should have to pay for itself, if the money that it receives goes only to the “company” that owns it, whether it is religious or secular.
    http://www.charitynavigator.org/

  8. Barbara

    That was a very poor response from the chairman. You are 100% right on this issue. Would people be in favor of donations to Scientology or the Moonies or whatever, if it “helped tourism”?

    • Rob Millan

      But those groups don’t hold a major tourist attraction in Montgomery County, Barbara. Maybe when they can draw the crowds the BOS can throw this very small money toward them, too.

      Like usual, the bigger picture is missed: that $750 is a rather small investment for the tens of thousands of dollars in potential revenue this will bring from local hotel stays. The irony is that this $750 more more than likely pay for itself ten times over, as it’s evidently coming from the room occupancy tax collected from local hotels (at least according to Jerry, who in turn accords it to Mr. Chiara).

      Perhaps the naysayers would be better suited by calling this $750 a loan since it’ll be returned so fast.

      I think the issue has been blown a bit out of context and proportion.

      • The amount is irrelevant, the issue is the act. If you steal $75 or $750, you have still committed the same crime. The Constitutional test imposed by the Supreme Court is the Lemon Test derived from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). (This would have appeared in Weaver’s blog had he not censored my comments.) To be considered Constitutionally sound, government involvement in religion must pass three rules: 1. The action must have a secular legislative purpose. 2. The action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion. 3. The action must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion.

        Clearly giving ANY amount to a religious organization to promote their religion does not pass the test.

      • carol jordan

        If the group collects money from the public and is a “religious” constitution, it should have no problem doing whatever it can to take care of it’s own “business”. Why did they even apply in the first place?
        I don’t believe in any religious institution receiving money from the public coffers, for any reason, except perhaps in a dire emergency, @ hurricane, flood, tornado, etc.. In retrospect…
        I wonder if the county would have helped the little church right outside town, (or if it did), when the tornado last summer did damage to it. Just a thought.
        Public funds belong to the public, not religious institutions, and that is totally the way it should be. Religious organizations are meant to nourish the souls, and bodies of the poor in body and spirit, and this purpose should not accomplished by anything, EXCEPT the money that is give ONLY by those involved in their membership who CHOOSE to do so. I chose NOT to give to an organization that is collecting money for an event that “worships” anything. What is next? Should we give public monies to those who want to build a monument in a public park for those who wish to worship there? Maybe a big Budda in Shuttleworth, or a “wailing wall” at Veteran’s field. Think about it…would this make sense? While it would bring worshippers to worship there, might increase tourism, and give people in town a nice place to worship….should the public monies be allowed to be used for these purposes? NO !
        They should give the money back and stop this nonsense. I am getting tired of writing, but I won’t stop until it is.

        Carol Jordan

  9. Barbara

    I did say “if” those groups helped tourism, did I not? I am aware that the Moonies are not a tourist draw in Montgomery County. If this group draws crowds, why does it need public money? Why should a person of another faith donate to the Catholic church?

  10. Rob Millan

    Thankfully, the county BOS interpreted the merits of United Americans’ claims to be unfounded and, according to the County attorney, their letter will not be answered.  The monies from the County for the activities at the shrine will actually go toward the St. Regis Indians who will perform at the shrine, and not to the shrine itself, as indicated by a supervisor.
     
    My fear, which I’m sure is shared by others, is that this action will still be unsatisfactory to a certain few, leading to a lawsuit akin to the Iowa prisoners’ one, which will surely cost far more than the amount in question and surely will negate any profits had from the event.

    • Funny that the story about the money not going to the Shrine but instead to Native American dancers just appeared out of nowhere! All one has to do is read the resolution the BOS adopted to see that is a total fabrication. Even if the money was to go directly to the dancers employed to celebrate a religious ritual, it would be just as illegal as it would be promoting the catholic religion.

      The same County Attorney that initially stated he never thought about the church and state implication, now claims to know more than the legal team for an organization that has been fighting this battle since 1947.

      No matter how the BOS, or the Leader-Herald wants to spin this story, the “donation” to the Shrine continues to be illegal and Americans United for Separation of Church and State will defend their position in court.

      The right thing to do would be to rescind.

      I never did receive a response from my representative, 5th Ward Supervisor Michael Chiara, concerning this situation. He did require me to send him a written complaint. The least he could do is return a response.

      • carol jordan

        There are all sorts of things going on here…. to combine “worship” (the Canonizing of Kateri), with other sorts of “stuff” to make money, is very typical of some religions.
        The bottom line is….
        John 2:13….Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. 15 He then made a whip of cords. He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the money changers’ money and overturned the tables. 16 And He said to those who sold the doves, “Take these things away ! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise.”
        Any time religion combines with worship…God will intervene. People can protest, but in the end I totally believe, as it states clearly in the previous verse, God is the judge and those who are accountable will be judged.
        It is time to put this matter to rest, and let the results be as they may.
        While I don’t want my tax dollars paid to promote religious organizations I don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in abortion, homosexuality rights, welfare, and giving money to those who don’t work, (and are able), which are a part of the “worlds” religion – “humanism”, but I do what I can in my small corner of the world to remain diligent about praying for that. Most of the time that is all I can do.

        AMEN AND AMEN
        Carol Jordan

        • Carol, since you already made your position clear on this subject with your last two responses, I can only assume the reason for the third response is to show how religious you are by quoting the bible and proselytizing. We are a multicultural nation of many faiths. It is my beliefs that ones religion is a private matter, but since you brought it up, I do not believe in the invisible man in the sky that listens to prayers and controls everything. The bible is just a book of fables written by man, used to control man. It was heavily edited through generations. Very little of it is factual. People need to put their faith in each other, not some invisible god in the sky or a book of myths. It is what you do today, here and now that matters, not in some mythical afterlife.

          You state in your third response, “I don’t believe in abortion, homosexuality rights….”
          There is no such thing as homosexuality rights, only human rights that apply to each and every one of us equally whether we are gay or straight, men or women, white or black, young or old, disabled or not. To single out gays in your statement implies that we are less than or second class citizens, this is NOT the case. If this is what your religion is promoting then it is EVIL and deserving of no ones support. Hitler used the same tactics against Jews.

          Newsflash Carol, being gay is NOT a choice, NOT a lifestyle, we ARE born this way. I cannot change my sexual orientation any more than you can change yours. I have been fighting this battle all of my life and just can’t understand how people who describe themselves as religious, feel so morally superior that they can condemn an entire class of people, denying them the same rights that everyone else enjoys in this Country.

          It’s also time we put THAT matter to rest.

          Jerry

  11. carol jordan

    You are so right. I was totally wrong going on with the matter, but believing in Christ is also something I was born with. I went through my whole life until I was in my 40’s searching for something to believe in, and then found Christ, so that is why I am sometime a little opinionated about that, because I have been on both sides of that fence.
    I will agree to put these matters to rest, except to agree that we should not have to give money to organizations, religious, or otherwise that we don’t believe in, which include all of those listed in my previous letter.
    I want to remain friends with you, so I do hope that you didn’t think I was putting you down. I think you are a very talented and personable man and I enjoy seeing what a creative mind you have. You will be a great asset to the new Art Center, and you should apply to be the Director if you have time. We will need someone with good skills to keep it all together.
    I will keep my big mouth closed about religion, politics and anything else that we don’t agree about. I can sometime come off as being a little opinionated, but that stems from my beliefs, just as yours do.
    Isn’t it fun being us?
    Carol

    • Carol,
      This world would be a boring place if its inhabitants were all clones of the same model. Diversity is what makes the world brilliant and stimulates learning and adaptation.
      Despite our differences, we share a common thread. We are more alike than you and I would care to admit.

      With that said, communication is key to fostering learning and overcoming our fears. Adaptation requires exposure to a changing environment. You have helped bridge that gap by insisting I join the Mohawk Valley Creative Alliance, a group that was your vision. I have a lot of respect for you and the work that you do and appreciate the opportunity to become a part of it.
      Jerry

      • carol

        Dear Jerry,
        Thank you for thé reply. I am glad wé can share views wé believe in without judgement of each other. See you Thursday.
        Carol

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