Opponents of US-Vatican ties plan legal challenge

Opponents of the establishment of United States diplomatic ties with the Holy See plan to carry their battle into court in the wake of Senate approval of the President's appointment of an ambassador to the church entity.

The Senate Wednesday confirmed the nomination of William A. Wilson to be the first envoy to the Holy See. The vote was 81 to 13.

Mr. Wilson is a California land developer who has been serving as President Reagan's personal representative at the Vatican. With a strong nudge from the President, Congress last year repealed an 1867 statute that banned the use of federal funds for a US mission at the Vatican. That move paved the way for full US diplomatic recognition of the Holy See and the naming of an ambassador.

Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, John East (R) of North Carolina, and Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas spoke against the approval of Wilson. ''I cannot see how one could have the grave concerns that I have about the prayer-in-school debate . . . and at the same time agree to expenditures of public funds literally recognizing a particular religion,'' Senator Bumpers said.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who sponsored the law overturning the 1867 ban, said the US is establishing relations with secular city-state of the Vatican, not with the Roman Catholic Church. However, contrary to public impression, the move establishes formal US ties not with Vatican City but with the Holy See, which is the supreme authority of the Catholic Church.

Following the Senate vote, James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on public affairs, said: ''I am saddened by the likelihood that many senators who did understand the gravity of this action were probably intimidated by political pressures and the fear of being thought anti-Roman Catholic, when the issue was far more one of principle than a division of sentiment about any particular church. . . . This is a truly tragic day in the history of American church-state relations.''

Lawyers for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other groups are trying to determine how best to put the issue to a judicial test.

Before Wilson can be paid and the US mission in Rome upgraded, the House and Senate appropriations committees must approve a State Department request to use its funds for that purpose. Despite lobbying by opponents, the committees are expected to approve the funding.

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