Pancho Murrietta, who spent time in the Pima County Jail for a crime he did not commit, put a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a natural grotto on the side of the mountain on South Mission Road in 1993. The original is gone but the site has been added to over the years by many visitors. It, along with another shrine about 100 yards away, sit in the mountainside, north of the West Starr Pass Boulevard overpass. Photo by Alex Dalenberg/Arizona Daily Star.

Alex Dalenberg/Arizona Daily Sta

A national group dedicated to keeping church and state separate is pressuring the city to remove a two-decades-old religious shrine from "A" Mountain.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter Friday to City Manager Richard Miranda asking the city remove or relocate to private property the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine from a small grotto on the southeast slope of the mountain.

City officials say the shrine isn't hurting anyone and they're not inclined to take it down anytime soon.

The shrine dates to 1993, when a former Pima County jail inmate created it as thanks for an answer to one of his prayers.

The inmate, Pancho Murrietta, was released from confinement after police located a witness who confirmed Murrietta was innocent. Over the years, countless others have visited the site to pray and leave behind religious items in the hopes for a similar outcome.

The foundation, based in Madison, Wis., asserts the presence of this "patently religious symbol" on city land constitutes "government endorsement of Christianity in an extremely public way."

An attorney for the foundation said the shrine could violate the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause, which prohibits government from establishing an official religion.

"Basically, leaving this semi-permanent, or permanent, shrine on city property is a violation," said foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott.

It also opens the door for others to set up religious symbols on public property wherever they see fit. And that's not a precedent local municipalities should be setting, Elliott said.

Elliott said his group got involved after a local resident recently contacted the foundation to complain about the shrine. The Star was unable to contact the individual who made the complaint for a comment.

City officials have had only a short time to review the letter, but it's clear where their sentiment lies.

"We are aware of the complaint. 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," city spokesman Mike Graham said in an email.

City Attorney Mike Rankin said he does not believe the shrine is a violation.

Some say whoever made the initial complaint should find more productive ways to spend his or her time.

"I think this falls under the category of somebody seriously needing to get a life and quit being strung so tightly that everything is cause for being offended," said City Councilman Steve Kozachik. "Allowing a shrine up on 'A' Mountain isn't establishing a religion. It's simply respecting a group's desire to express their faith. If the guy doesn't want to participate, he can go and watch the sunset from the other side of the parking lot up there."

As of now, Elliott said he wasn't certain if a lawsuit would ever be filed. He said the easiest solution would be to move it to private land.

What about the others?

The shrine on "A" Mountain is not the only religious structure on city property, beyond the spontaneous temporary roadside shrines that often appear after accidents.

Elliott makes no reference to two much larger and more well-known shrines:

• El Tiradito, the Wishing Shrine, on a city-owned lot at 418 S. Main Ave., is reputed to be the only Catholic shrine in the United States dedicated to a sinner buried in unconsecreated ground. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and attracts thousands of visitors annually, many of whom light religious-themed candles and leave notes hoping a wish will be granted.

• The Garden of Gethsemane, on the bank of the Santa Cruz River just north of West Congress Street, in Frank Lucero Park, just below "A" Mountain. The park is named for the man who created the numerous life-size religious statues there between 1938 and 1951, in homage to the Virgin Mary for his life being spared in World War I. The statues are delicate and massive, and moving them would be expensive.

Elliott said he wasn't familiar with any other displays because the foundation typically takes action only after a complaint is filed by a local resident.

Despite that, Elliott said, if the other displays are similar, then the foundation believes the city should remove them as well.

"We do not have plans to contact the city about other displays at this time," Elliott said. "That said, they remain a liability and should be addressed. Very few cities across the country have this problem. The city could easily remove items left on public property."

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or