US judge rules public funds can be used for church renovations

The Federal district court ruling in Michigan highlights a shift away from strict church-state separation.

Should citizens' tax dollars be spent to renovate houses of worship?

The answer to that question used to be a resounding "No, it's unconstitutional." But Aug. 8, a federal judge broke new ground. He ruled that the city of Detroit could partially reimburse three churches for renovations they made to their buildings to make the downtown area more attractive before the 2006 Super Bowl. (The city paid numerous property owners for renovations.)

Public funds can go to churches for improvements that serve a civic purpose, but not to promote religion, ruled Judge Avern Cohn of the US District Court of Eastern Michigan. In practical terms, that meant the churches could be reimbursed for repairs to their buildings and parking lots, which "convey no religious message," he said, but not for new signs or stained-glass windows.

"This is the first time we've gotten a court decision on government bricks-and-mortar spending in a very long time," says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University. And it's likely to capture the attention of states and cities across the United States as they consider similar church-state matters.

The ruling troubles those who hold to a strict separation of church and state, including the group that brought the case against Detroit's downtown development agency.

"If it's OK for the government to pay for bricks and mortar, what's to stop it from out and out building churches?" asks Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists Inc. (AAI) "The ramifications are tremendous."

The ruling represents an attempt to grapple seriously with a changing legal landscape, says Mr. Tuttle, who codirects legal research for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy based in Albany, N.Y. Pressures have grown in recent years to move away from the idea of a strict separation between church and state. Proponents in legal and religious circles have called for government neutrality toward religion – providing a level playing field where religious and secular entities can compete for public funds. This issue remains highly contentious.

Not long ago, it was deemed unconstitutional for public money to go to groups whose mission was "pervasively sectarian," in the language of the US Supreme Court. (The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits any government "establishment of religion.")

In 1973, the Supreme Court stated in regard to religious structures that government "may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair." That decision has never been repudiated, but in 2000, the Court ruled (in Mitchell v. Helms) that government can provide funds to religious groups as long as the money does not support religious activities. Parsing that in practice becomes the challenge.

President Bush's faith-based initiative made funding of religious organizations for a variety of social services a prime goal. Some of those projects have been challenged in court, a few successfully, for promoting a particular religion.

In 2003, the administration announced it was opening the door to direct funding for renovations to religious buildings through the Save America's Treasures program to preserve cultural landmarks. (The Department of Justice later issued legal opinions that could allow funding religious structures under other federal programs.)

The first grant, for $317,000, was given to restore the windows in Boston's Old North Church, made famous by Paul Revere. Later that year, $375,000 went to Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the nation's oldest synagogue. Both are active houses of worship, but they are also historical landmarks that draw visitors in large numbers. No challenge has been mounted to those grants.

"We have well over half a million visitors each year, including some 70,000 school kids," says Ed Pignone, director of Old North Foundation. The 1723 church is "Boston's most visited historic site," he says.

Other instances of direct government aid are being challenged, however. When Congress passed a bill specifically to fund the restoration of California missions, 19 of which are active Catholic churches, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it would sue. The missions have yet to raise the matching money that would trigger the grant.

And last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in Louisiana to halt the payment of $120,000 in state money to two churches. The funds were earmarked in an appropriations bill, without any purpose or justification given.

AAI is considering whether to appeal the Michigan ruling. Although they had a partial victory (some church expenses were not reimbursed), they say they can't let the bricks-and-mortar argument stand.

"You could easily build a megachurch and avoid the religion iconography," Ms. Johnson says. "Then the church could later say, 'Now we'll put in the religious symbols ourselves.' " There's nothing secular about a church, she adds.

Others argue that religious groups frequently provide a secular service that makes them worthy of public support, even without setting up a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit to ensure no funds go to religious activities. This is the thinking behind Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative.

Partners for Sacred Places (PSP), a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization founded in 1989 to help preserve older and historic houses of worship, seeks contributions from private and public sources to help congregations repair their buildings.

Partners conducted a study of 100 congregations in six cities. It found that, on average, each maintained four community service programs. And 80 percent of the people who entered the buildings in a given week were nonmembers – people receiving those community services.

To donors, "we say it isn't supporting a religion, but supporting everybody – they don't make distinctions between kids or seniors of one faith or another," says Bob Jaeger, PSP executive director. "The other argument is that these are historic buildings ... that are an important part of a community's heritage."

PSP set up a fund in Pennsylvania and raised $2 million in donations from the William Penn Foundation, the state government (three different sources), and individuals to restore buildings in southeastern counties. The goal is to help congregations across the state.

One beneficiary is St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in west Philadelphia. "It's an enormous building ... and they've been struggling for 20 years with how to fix the [three] domes which have water leaks," says Mr. Jaeger. "The church has an amazing physical presence and a cluster of programs for the community – we gave them $100,000."

For strict separationists like Johnson, no tax money should help a church – "religion should be doing that themselves."

For Tuttle, the Michigan decision seriously tackles the changes that have gone on in the law: the shift from barring any funding to religious institutions to barring funding for any religious activities. It comes down neither on the strict separationists side nor on the blanket neutrality approach of the Bush administration.

Instead, it says that "when a government makes a grant for secular purposes to a broad set of grantees, it can include churches," Tuttle adds. "But it has to be careful it is not directly supporting the religious mission or ministry."

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