GREEN BAY – A Madison-based religious freedom group has sent letters to the city of Green Bay, taking issue with the mayor’s recent letter to Pope Francis.
The pope is expected to come to the United States next year.
Mayor Jim Schmitt sent the invitation, on city letter head, to the leader of the Catholic Church last month, on city letterhead.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation, says it is not the business of government officials to invite a religious leader to the city they are elected to represent.
"Mayor (Jim) Schmitt needs to be reminded that his job is civil and secular,” said Gaylor in a phone interview with FOX 11. “And that he is the mayor – not just of Catholics – but of all citizens of Green Bay."
Though it is peppered with religious terms, Schmitt's invite, the mayor says, is not intended to promote one religion.
“Yeah, maybe it was a little heavy on the religious side,” Schmitt said in a press conference Wednesday about the group’s disapproval. “But then again, that's who I am. I'm not going to hide that."
The invitation also includes visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in nearby Champion. A mid-1800s appearance of the Virgin Mary at the shrine in Champion was validated by the Catholic Church in 2010. It is the only Catholic Church-recognized shrine in the U.S.
"It's not appropriate for him to, to promote Catholicism,” said Gaylor. “And it's embarrassing to have him promote this ridiculous shrine."
But the mayor – who is Catholic – disagrees.
"I wasn't asking him to come here and say Mass in the council chambers and convert people. I'm asking him to come here and I understand that when the pope shows up, there's a huge economic impact."
"The pope is going to be invited by many, many mayors – and many communities throughout the U.S. We want to be on the short list,” said Schmitt.
“That was my goal,” said Schmitt, who believes a papal visit will boost the area both economically and spiritually.
Despite the cost of security running upwards of $1 million a day.
"Sure, there's expense to that,” said Schmitt. “It won't be at the taxpayers’ expense.”
The group also filed an open records request. It wants to know if city time or money went into planning the possible visit.
Schmitt says he's mayor 24-7 and bought the website with his personal credit card. He says an outside committee is handling the invitation follow-up.
The Catholic Diocese of Green Bay says it will wait to see how the Vatican responds to the request.