The Freedom From Religion Foundation's efforts to halt an unconstitutional taxpayer grant to a North Carolina church have been successful.
The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority had awarded $72,500 to Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, N.C., for, according to local media, "an innovative project, to artfully portray [the church's] mission and ministry through a large-scale work of art in the medium of fresco." This project was meant to decorate the church's sanctuary with a Christian religious scene of the "eight beatitudes" of Jesus delivered during the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament [Matthew 5:3–12].
The church's pastor had told the media that the project would directly promote the church's religious mission: "What it will do more than anything is theologize our deepest belief here, and that is that God blesses those who suffer the most." He also explained that it would be "a timeless witness, both visually and spiritually, to the Gospel."
It is unconstitutional for the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to fund a religious mural, FFRF contended.
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches," FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority President & CEO Stephanie Pace Brown last November. "Buncombe County may not award grants to churches in order to decorate their sanctuaries with religious imagery."
Any reasonable observer would understand the city's contribution of $72,000-plus as an endorsement of this church and the religious message portrayed in the project, FFRF maintained. The U.S. Constitution prohibits such endorsement regardless of whether the project attracts tourists and possibly generates revenue for the county.
FFRF's campaign has paid off.
"Asheville's Haywood Street Congregation has withdrawn its request for funding for a fresco project from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, ending a several-months-long challenge of the grant's constitutionality," the Asheville Citizen-Times reports.
The congregation's move was a response to the second thoughts the county had about disbursing taxpayer funds in this manner.
"Earlier this week, the Buncombe Tourism Development Authority voted to table a $72,500 grant it previously had awarded the church to install a fresco in the sanctuary of its property at 297 Haywood St.," states the Citizen-Times.
FFRF is pleased with the outcome.
"Taxpayers were being wrongly asked to hand out their money to a church," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Would there have been the same complacency if it was a mosque involved?"
Gaylor notes that the county could fund any number of secular projects to boost tourism in ways that do not exclude nonreligious citizens.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including 600-plus and a chapter in North Carolina. FFRF's purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.