Group backs off plan to sue city

RENO — A group that advocates separation of church and state has decided not to sue a Nevada city over its funding to a church that Mark Twain helped build in his 20s.

But Americans United for Separation of Church and State would go to court if Carson City supervisors award any future payments to the First Presbyterian Church, said Alex Luchenitser, an attorney for the Washington-based group.

The group decided not to sue over the city’s two past payments to the church because it has found that courts are reluctant to force religious institutions to return money already awarded, he said.

In February, supervisors awarded $78,800 to the church for sidewalks, landscaping and roof repairs. In 2006, the city gave $67,700 to help with design costs for a new church, which is next to the original one built in the 1860s.

Americans United maintains that the payments violated the First Amendment and that public money cannot be used to support religious activity directly or indirectly.

“We’re hoping that the city is not stupid enough to make any more constitutionally questionable payments to the church,” Luchenitser said.

Supervisors rejected the group’s request to rescind the payments and said they were trying to preserve Nevada’s oldest church building, not support religion. They said the payments covered additional costs from an agreement that paved the way for the congregation to build a new church in return for backing off its plan to raze the historic brick one.

Twain raised money to help complete construction of the church by charging admission to his January 1864 “roast” of lawmakers in Carson City.

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