NC County Gives $72,500 Gift to Church To Paint Fresco of Jesus

The Haywood Street Congregation is a church in Asheville, North Carolina that plans to produce a giant fresco (a la Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel) that will portray Jesus delivering the Beatitudes.

Rev. Brian Combs told a local news reporter that the fresco would be “a timeless witness, both visually and spiritually, to the Gospel in pigment and plaster where the last are finally made first.” Artwork to promote his religious beliefs.

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There wouldn’t be a problem with that… except for one thing: The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority — i.e. the government — just gave the church $72,500 for the project.

“This project is a great example of community and tourism working together,” says Robert Foster, chairperson of the TPDF committee, which recommended the project for funding.

“The TPDF grant program has supported 34 community projects that are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike,” said Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of Explore Asheville. “This project will help bring visitors to Asheville, and to the church, to truly build community with tourism.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation says this crosses all sorts of boundaries between church and state, since taxpayers shouldn’t be promoting church artwork that promotes a religious belief.

In a letter to Brown, FFRF calls for the grant to be rescinded.

It is unconstitutional for the [Tourism Development Authority] to fund a religious mural, inside a church’s sanctuary. We understand that the TDA believes this project will boost tourism in the county, but this purported secular goal does not excuse the fact that the government is funding a religious project inside a house of worship.

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority must immediately rescind its grant to Haywood Street Congregation. We also request written assurances that the TDA will not fund religious projects in the future so that we may notify our local complainant that this matter has been resolved.

It’s not just that the county is using taxpayer money to promote a Bible story. It’s that the gift frees up money the church can use to proselytize.

Some readers may recall the Supreme Court recently ruled that grants available to the public can’t exclude places of worship, but the caveat in the Trinity Lutheran case was that the grant money still had to be used for a secular purpose. In the case of the Missouri church, it was renovating a playground to be safer for kids.

But here? There’s no secular purpose for a fresco of Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor.” The pastor himself admitted that, which means the law should very clearly be on FFRF’s side.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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