After Atheists Voice Dissent, Tucson City Council Rescinds $1,100,000 Gift to Catholic Church

Here’s one way to fix local economies: Put the Freedom From Religion Foundation in charge. They just saved the city of Tucson, Arizona $1,100,000.

The backstory is this: Back in July, the Tucson City Council voted 5-2 to use $1,100,000 of taxpayer funds to restore a building owned by the Catholic Church.

The Marist building is a historical landmark in the city because it’s the “tallest unfired adobe building” in the state, but the Catholic Church hasn’t used it since 2002, and the building may not even be worth restoring. Even if the city restored it, it would belong to the Church and not the city of Tucson. Shady, no?

The Marist Building

Tom Danehy of the Tucson Weekly was brutal in his critique of the place:

The place is a dump, and not all that attractive as dumps go. If a meteor were to hit it, it would do about $200,000 worth of improvements. And, oh yeah, people keep referring to it as “Arizona’s only surviving three-story adobe.” There’s a reason for that — all of the other ones have fallen down already.

If the Church wants to restore it, why aren’t they investing any of their own money into it? Maybe because they don’t really care about the place. But if it’s on the taxpayers’ dime, why not?!

That brings us to FFRF.

In early August, they sent a letter (PDF) to Mayor Jonathan Rothschild urging him and the city council to reconsider their vote — after all, given all the money the Diocese of Tucson has and how much they’ve spent on other pieces of property they own (as well as sexual abuse payouts), they’re the ones who ought to be covering this bill if they care about the Marist building.

The message this Council has repeatedly communicated to the Diocese and that you reinforced on July 10, is that churches will be rewarded if they neglect their duties as landowners and community members and fail to maintain their historic buildings. On behalf of our tucson members we ask that you examine the above facts carefully and reconsider the misguided funding vote.

Councilman Steve Kozachik agrees — he was one of the two city council members to vote against the restoration:

“The Catholic Church has neglected [the Marist building] for a decade. If they were serious about this building, they could cancel one of their pro-life ad blitzes and pay for it in a heartbeat.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, there was good news. On September 11th, City Manager Richard Miranda let everyone know that the city would no longer be funding this project:

The Diocese of Tucson has informed City staff that they wish to retain ownership of the Marist College so that it can be used by them and the local parish. Based on the Diocese’ desire to retain ownership, the overall intent of the Mayor and Council direction of July 10, 2012 and the specific conditions that were part of the direction to staff can not be accommodated. I have instructed staff to take no further action regarding a potential agreement for the use of CDBG funds for the stabilization of the Marist College.”

The money will now be reallocated to things like road and water tower repairs.

The credit may not fully go to FFRF here, but who knows if that’s what it took to finally tip the scales in the other direction:

“This is a major victory for taxpayers and for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It pays to complain, or rather in this case, our complaint stops an unconstitutional payment.”

And a lawsuit wasn’t even needed. Victory all around!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • The Other Weirdo

    So, um, they already enjoy a tax-free status, and they wanted the taxpayer to shell out additional funds to renovate one of their buildings? That’s… arrogant of them.

  • Nazani14

    I know there are 3 or 4 story adobe buildings on Navaho reservations.  This building might be an interesting tourist destination, if the church made it some sort of museum.  What I can’t understand is why it would cost so much to repair mud and straw.

  • TiltedHorizon

    Seems like they are wasting the opportunity to evidence a miracle by trying to use public funds and resources. Let all the believers surround the church and pray that it be restored. All can watch first-hand as the cracks, chips, and weakened facade miraculously renew. We can all feel the undeniable shake of the ground as the foundation reestablishes its former integrity.

    They would have their church back and all those detractors of the only correct faith would have to STFU.  Two bird, using one renewed holier than thou pious stone.

  • machintelligence

    Probably because it would have to be brought up to modern building code standards. 

  • The Other Weirdo

     I watched the Borg do it, on-screen no less, so I know it’s possible. They got together and literally prayed the damage caused by the evil, atheistic, baby-eating crew of the Enterprise. We could all see the damage being repaired, hull plates reforming, holes left by phaser fire filling in. Then they went on and kicked their asses, and it took the intervention of a freaking God to save a bunch of atheists.

    Surely the Catholic faith is stronger and more sure than the fictional happenings done with special effects!

  • TiltedHorizon

    YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED …  into the ‘saved ‘ collective as long as you accept the gift of ‘geee-sus’ (southern drawl).

  • Richard Wigton

     You just gotta love the Catholic church. They’re tax exempt and use their financial clout to get their legislation passed but yet expected the taxpayers to pay for fixing up one of their buildings they have been neglecting. Use your own damn money I say!  And the kicker is that the city councel orginally thought this was a swell idea by  5 to 2 vote!  Yeah don’t use the money to fix your  infrastructure or anything.  Pay to fix up an old  church building. Idiots.

  • Alexander Ryan

    I think it’s more a sense of entitlement than just plain old arrogance. 

  • Denis Robert

     It’s for all the wine they’ll have to buy to re-dedicate the chapel. That and to make sure the choirboys are nice and loose…

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    This case shows why it is so important for us to support (i.e., join/fund) groups like FFRF and Americans United (for separation of church and state), and to inform them when things like this are brewing in our local communities.

    By intervening before the money was actually spent, FFRF and locals were able to prevent this $1.1-million ‘gift’ from hardworking taxpayers to an already-wealthy Catholic church.

    A ‘tip of my hat’ to FFRF! 

  • Mairianna

     Read the story of the restoration of Mission San  Xavier Del Bac on the Tohono O’odam Indian reservation:  the first time it was renovated, they used modern materials and the harsh Arizona atmosphere blew it right off.  They then had to restore again, using original natural materials:   So much for god’s plan, huh? 

  • C Peterson

    It remains inaccurate to describe FFRF as “atheists”.

  • Moira

    I fully support conservation of older buildings (and in the west, we have so much fewer older buildings that any loss is bad).
    But if the Catholic Church owns the building and will own the building after it is restored, they not only have to pay for restoration, they should be fined for letting a historic building fall into disrepair.
    They can fund raise for individuals to pay of restoration, or donation to a conservation society, but asking taxpayers to do their work for them is a case of chutzpah.

  • DougI

    Atheists save you money.  Meanwhile, people have to pay to subsidize religion.  If the church had to pay property tax they probably would have sold off the property years ago and someone would have paid to restore it with their own money.

    The deadbeat Catholic church wants to ban abortion and force people to have kids.  Meanwhile the Catholic church can’t even take care of a building.  Great parental role models.

  • DougI

     No doubt they’re crying about religious persecution because they weren’t given 1.1 million of taxpayer money.

  • r.holmgren

    Keeping em honest. Good job.

  • Robster

    God and the baby jesus should’ve wandered down to the local home improvement store, picked up a few goodies and got to work.  The Arizona catholics could have had a “prayathon” for god and the baby jesus to get the job done, mother mary could get the drinks and sharpen things for the tradesgod. As god whipped up the entire universe in a week, surely he and his carpenter son could fix up an old derilect RCC squat without too much effort.

  • Richard Wade

    That three-story eyesore is made out of unfired adobe??! Then it’s a deathtrap. I wouldn’t walk within 100 feet of it, let alone go inside. Its building material has the structural strength of dried mud because it is dried mud. 

    In California, we’ve learned the hard way about what happens to unreinforced brick buildings during even moderate earthquakes. Sure, we have a handful of historic one story adobe buidings still standing, basically because they’re built like pyramids, or they were easy to reassemble after an earthquake knocked them down. Once you drag the bodies out, it’s easy to make new adobe bricks out of the old dust. Just add water.

    The Catholic Church won’t have to spend much money demolishing it. All they need is a garden hose.

  • Freethought_Arizona

    Yes it was great that the Tucson City council reversed their decision and I appreciate the FFRF for stepping in. There were other voices as well. Here is the letter that I sent to each member of the council. I kept it simple and to the point…

    Tuesday, August 07, 2012

    Dear Mayor Rothschild and Members of the Tucson City

    On behalf of the Atheists and others who believe in the
    separation of church and state, I strongly object to the council action on July
    10th to award $1.1 Million dollars of taxpayer money to the Catholic
    Church for the restoration of the Marist building.

    As long as the Catholic Church owns this property taxpayer
    money should not go to its maintenance or restoration. Aside from having First
    Amendment implications, it doesn’t make good business sense to revitalize a
    building to return it to profitability when it is owned by a tax exempt



    Don Lacey

    State Director, American Atheists

    Tucson Atheists

    Secular Coalition for Arizona

    Member, FreeThought Arizona


  • Brian Macker

    If historical societies value these private buildings then they should be using their own funds, not taxpayer funds.   This is regardless of whether a building is religious or not.

  • Brian Macker

    Not unlike many enviromental, historical, socialists, and other groups.  Leftists and other groups have zero compunction about using taxpayer funds for their private projects.  Not only that they see no conflict in using those funds to pack the polling place.  Look at Acorn, and the organizations that no longer call themselves that name but are pretty much the same organizations relabeled.