First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 4, No. 1, August 2003
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
Government Funding Church Renovations
The Bush administration has decided that “historic” churches can get direct government support courtesy of the taxpayer, even if they have an active congregation and are still used regularly for worship services.
Because of constitutional concerns over government endorsement of religious activities, grants had not previously been provided to houses of worship that still house active congregations. A 1995 regulation under the administration of President Bill Clinton made that policy explicit.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced the new policy at an event at Boston’s Old North Church. Norton said $317,000 will be allocated for repair and restoration of the church building.
The church, constructed in 1723 and famous as the signaling post for Paul Revere at the start of the American Revolution, remains an active Episcopal congregation.
“Somebody needs to spread the alarm that the Bush administration is taxing people to support houses of worship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government funding for the repair and upkeep of houses of worship clearly violates the Constitution.”
“This is a shocking abuse of taxpayer rights,” said Lynn. “Church congregations ought to pay for the maintenance and repair of churches, historic or otherwise.”
Administration officials said the philosophy behind the policy change was similar to that behind Bush’s attempt to expand government’s ability to give money to religious groups for social services.
The administration’s move raises First Amendment issues. “No one questions that the Old North Church is a historic treasure,” said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee. “The issue is whether we are witnessing the continuing erosion of another treasure — the unique treatment of religion in our Constitution.”
Lynn said the new policy amounts to little more than taxpayer-funded religion. He accused the Bush administration of exploiting the famous Old North Church to advance its “faith-based” agenda and assault separation of church and state.
“Old North Church is historic,” Lynn said. “But it’s a church, not a museum, and it is still used for services every Sunday. Its repair and upkeep ought to be paid for by the people who worship there. Those congregants have no right to pass the collection plate to the taxpayer.”
Lynn stated that In 1973 the Supreme Court rejected the concept of government grants for church upkeep. In the PEARL v. Nyquist decision, the court observed, “If the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair.”
The church’s pastor said he does not believe his church’s acceptance of federal aid violates the First Amendment’s ban on government support for religion.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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