Gail Linville, left, and Mike Zanone, officials of the St. Joseph Area Association, stood by the historical marker for the grotto. Someone complained about the markerís wording, saying it violates provisions in the Constitution for separation of church and state. (Photos by Arza Barnett, The Courier-Journal) The grotto, which was built in 1927, is on the former grounds of the old St. Joseph Infirmary, a Catholic hospital that was razed in 1980.
Friday, February 17, 2006

Marker's wording OK, attorney general's office says

By Martha Elson
The Courier-Journal

A disagreement about the wording of a state highway historical marker for the St. Joseph grotto could be over, because the Kentucky attorney general's office said in a recent letter that the text is not unconstitutional.

The Kentucky Historical Society received a complaint last fall about the marker's wording -- which refers to an appearance by the Virgin Mary in France -- contending that it violated the principle of separation of church and state. The society had notified the St. Joseph Area Association that the wording might need to be changed, which the association opposed.

"Plainly, this marker does not convey a message of governmental endorsement of religion," says the letter, written for Attorney General Greg Stumbo by Robert S. Jones, executive director of Stumbo's office of civil and environmental law.

The letter was sent to state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, after he inquired about the constitutionality of the marker's wording at the request of the neighborhood association.

Alice Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Historical Society, which oversees the marker program, said yesterday that she had not seen Jones' letter and needed to consult the society's staff before commenting on how it might affect any possible rewording.

"I think it affirms what we said all along," said Mike Zanone, vice president of the neighborhood association. "There was a lot of thought that went into the wording of the marker."

Gail Linville, the group's president, said she has received messages and calls supporting the association's position.

The marker was put up on Bradley Avenue last year to honor the nearby Grotto and Garden of Our Lady of Lourdes, which was built in 1927 on the grounds of the old St. Joseph Infirmary, a Catholic hospital that was razed in 1980.

The marker says the local grotto is modeled on the natural grotto at Lourdes, in southwest France, "where Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858."

Jones' letter says an earlier official opinion from the attorney general's office concerning state support for preservation of the grotto is also applicable to the marker issue.

That opinion said the University of Louisville, which owns the grotto property, may authorize the restoration of the grotto, a "registered state and local historical landmark," by the neighborhood association "because of its cultural and historical value to the Louisville community."

The opinion, as described in the letter, says that "so long as the language on the marker does not advocate a religious perspective and instead limits the language to historical issues, it meets applicable First Amendment scrutiny."

Reporter Martha Elson can be reached at (502) 582-7061.

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