RENO, Nev. – A group that advocates the separation of church and state is warning a Nevada city that it will sue if the city gives anymore money to a church that Mark Twain helped build in his 20s.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State decided not to sue over Carson City's two past payments to the First Presbyterian Church, because courts are generally reluctant to force religious institutions to return funds already awarded, attorney Alex Luchenitser 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 adjacent to the original one built in the 1860s.
The Washington-based group maintains the payments violated the First Amendment barring establishment of religion, and that public funds can't 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. "If they keep paying money to this church, they're exposing themselves to a high risk of litigation. We're definitely going to be keeping an eye on them."
Supervisors rejected the group's request to rescind the payments, saying they were merely trying to preserve Nevada's oldest church building, not support religion.
The payments covered additional costs stemming from an agreement that paved the way for the congregation to construct a new church in return for backing off its plan to raze the historic brick one, they said.
Bruce Kochsmeier, the church's pastor, has said the city's money is "minimal compensation" for the church having to revise its plans.
He said the city's money benefits all residents and isn't being used to support the church.
"What we did has been done all over the country," Supervisor Pete Livermore said. "We had it reviewed by our attorney, and we did nothing irregular. We don't need anyone from the East telling us what to do."
Supervisors have no plans to provide any further money to the church at this time, Livermore said, but they haven't ruled out doing so in the future.
Twain raised $200 — worth about $2,200 today — to help complete construction of the church by charging admission to his January 1864 "roast" of Nevada lawmakers in Carson City, the state capital.
At the time, Twain was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in nearby Virginia City. His brother, Orion Clemens, was a church member and secretary of the Nevada Territory.