City of Tucson, Constitution group battle over religious shrines
Photo: Video by kgun9.com
CREATED Jun. 25, 2013
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Not on public property! That's the demand an out-of-state group is making over something on Tucson's west side. The organization is arguing a group of mountainside shrines need to go, but the city doesn’t plan to lift a finger.
The shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe are around the southeast base of “A” Mountain where Mission Road meets Starr Pass Boulevard. They include two hidden grottos, as well as a manmade shell covering a statute of Mary.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city of Tucson stating the shrines need to move because they're on public property. The group said a local member first brought the concern to the organization's attention.
“It’s always a big deal when the First Amendment is violated,” said foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “If we want to honor our Bill of Rights and our Constitution, we have to uphold it.”
The letter argued the mountain display "confers government endorsement of Christianity in an extremely public way."
Josefina Cardenas prays at the sites and defended their placement.
“This mountain -- as very many mountains -- is very sacred,” said Cardenas, a native Tucsonan.
“There's earthquakes, there's crime, there's murder,” she said. “If you want be focused on something that saves our soul, why take that away from us?”
Cardenas said the shrines are a reminder of local culture, tradition and faith.
What it signifies is who we are," she said.
“There's always a quote-on-quote good reason to make an exception and violate the provision separating religion from government,” Gaylor said over the phone. “I don't actually see any good reason here. I mean, it's just litter. It belongs on private property.”
The letter suggested the displays be moved to the "ample private and church grounds" nearby.
City officials refused to do an interview with KGUN9 Monday.
Instead, they sent a simple statement: "The City has looked at the shrine and determined that it does not pose any public safety or health issue. At this time there are no plans to remove it."
KGUN9 also contacted Councilwoman Regina Romero, whose ward includes the shrines. Staff said Romero was busy Tuesday and referred KGUN9 to the city attorney's office.
KGUN9 asked why the foundation complained about these particular shrines and not others like the locally well-known El Tiradito downtown. Gaylor said they didn't know about the others, but now want all of them moved off public property.
When asked if the city’s inactivity could lead to a lawsuit, Gaylor said it’s too early to talk about any possible lawsuit because the foundation hadn’t received a response from the city.
Gaylor said the foundation receives thousands of complaints a year but this one was out of the ordinary because most deal with public prayer or public school issues.
Members of local and state organizations like American Atheists and FreeThought Arizona support the foundation's efforts.