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Group fights funds for Twain church

Associated Press / March 2, 2009
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RENO - A group that advocates separation of church and state is protesting a Nevada city's decision to provide funding to a church that Mark Twain helped build as a fledgling writer in the 1860s.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State contends Carson City supervisors' votes concerning the First Presbyterian Church violated the First Amendment.

City and church officials disagree, saying the money is merely going toward 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 original one.

Last month, supervisors voted to give $78,800 to the church for sidewalks, landscaping, and roof repairs.

In 2006, the city gave $67,700 to help with design costs for the new church, which is adjacent to the old one.

Americans United will consider a lawsuit if supervisors fail to rescind the votes, said Alex Luchenitser, an attorney for the Washington-based group.

"It seems to be a very clear constitutional violation," he said. "The First Amendment mandates separation of church and state. Public funds can't be used to support religious activity directly or indirectly."

City officials say the money is designed to save the historic brick church and not support religious activity.

At the request of two church trustees, 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.

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