WASHINGTON (ABP) — For a change, the Bush administration isn't supporting a bill that would provide federal financial assistance to churches.
An official from Bush's National Park Service testified March 9 against a bill that would provide $10 million in federal funds to an organization that preserves and restores California's historic Spanish Catholic missions and their attendant artwork and artifacts.
Daniel Smith, a special assistant with the park service, testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on National Parks. He said the department opposed the bill because it would divert funds “at a time when we are trying to focus our available resources on taking care of existing National Park Service responsibilities.”
The bill, S. 1306, would provide the funds over a five-year period to the California Missions Foundation — a group dedicated to preserving the 21 missions from the 1700s and 1800s, when the state was under Spanish and Mexican control. Many of the adobe structures are crumbling from neglect, erosion and repeated earthquake damage.
“We are in danger of losing our history in California today, and that's why we are here,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), testifying on behalf of the bill.
However, 19 of the 21 missions are still owned by the Roman Catholic Church — and many still serve as the primary worship spaces for active Catholic parishes.
The bill contains language providing that the Secretary of the Interior would ensure the purpose of any grant to a mission under it “is secular, does not promote religion, and seeks to protect those qualities [of the mission] that are historically significant.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the subcommittee there were significant difficulties with such a requirement. “Frankly…it is impossible to segregate the historical from the spiritual and expect that government funds only go to the former,” he said. “Any funds that end up maintaining or restoring religious icons associated with devotion and worship will be viewed as an endorsement of religion at taxpayer expense.”
But Boxer said that, as a strong supporter of church-state separation, she thought the bill's protections were adequate. “It was put together in a very careful way — the funding goes to a foundation, not to a religious organization,” she testified.
Lynn argued that passing the money through a non-religious foundation would not be sufficient to avoid a violation of the Constitution's ban on government support for religion. He cited a trio of Supreme Court decisions banning any government support for construction or maintenance of buildings whose primary purpose is religious worship or instruction. “That seminal line of cases is unaffected by any subsequent church-state decision,” Lynn said. “Supporters of the mission grants contemplated by this bill would be skating on constitutional thin ice to believe that this long-standing principle has been altered, much less nullified.”
The Bush administration has pushed for government funding for religious groups — including a controversial decision last year to provide historic-preservation grants for projects at an Episcopal church in Boston and a Jewish synagogue in Newport, R.I. However, Lynn noted that regulations issued in September by Bush's own Department of Housing and Urban Development say that department funds “may not be used for acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of sanctuaries, chapels or any other rooms that a religious congregation…uses as its principal place of worship.”
But Boxer noted there was contrary federal precedent. She said four Catholic missions in San Antonio, Texas, have received federal funding through the National Park Service every year since 1978 — even though they still host worship services.
“We don't have time to debate the nuances of doing this, because we are losing our missions,” she said.
The House has already passed the bill.