Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged a U.S. Senate panel to reject a plan to allocate $10 million in federal funds for mission churches in California.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn testified during a March 9 hearing focused on the California Missions Preservation Act (S. 1306), a measure that would earmark public funds for the repair and upkeep of 21 Roman Catholic mission churches and their associated religious artworks and artifacts.
In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Lynn said federal aid to religion violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Houses of worship, he said, must be supported by voluntary giving, not government subsidies.
Lynn noted that 19 of the 21 churches are still owned by the Catholic Church and provide mass and other religious services for active parishes.
"Preservation of historic buildings is important, but preservation of the constitutional right to religious liberty is vital," said Lynn. "These missions are houses of worship; they are not simply museums. Funds to fix the ceilings and windows and to revitalize the religious icons on the walls must come from their congregants or from the tens of thousands of yearly visitors and from America's charitable foundations. I believe that the people of California and tourists from around the nation can preserve these mission buildings without passing the collection plate to Uncle Sam."
Lynn insisted that the cost of church maintenance has long been regarded as the responsibility of individual donors, not the government. He noted that James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, vetoed a congressional appropriation of a small parcel of land to a Baptist church in Mississippi.
Lynn pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court on at least three occasions has ruled against the use of direct public funding to maintain churches and church schools.
Concluded Lynn, "The history of religion in America is a story of voluntary giving, not a chronicle of government subsidy. In no small measure, the vitality and diversity of religious discourse should be credited to the rigorously 'hands off' approach government has taken toward religion. Governments do not choose favorite faiths for assistance; they do not bail out religious groups like some ailing corporations. In America, religions make it or break it by themselves."
Lynn was invited to appear before the Senate subcommittee by Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who serves as the panel's chairman. Thomas expressed concerns about the bill and said he was not sure he could support it.
"I am wondering if there is a legitimate way to separate the historic funding of the missions from the religious aspects of the church," he said.
Although the Bush administration enthusiastically advocates "faith-based" projects, it does not back this legislation. P. Daniel Smith, special assistant, National Parks Service, testified that the Interior Department opposes special earmarks for the California missions at a time when money is needed for historic preservation and other projects at other national parks.
But Smith added that if the bill does advance, it is important that the federal government work with the Catholic hierarchy on the project.
"Should [the legislation] move to a committee markup, we would suggest requiring a formal partnership role for the appropriate Catholic Church archdioceses where the missions remain active churches and in church ownership," Smith said. "Without the full partnership and support of the Church, the most effective and best long-term preservation of these national treasures cannot be assured."
California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, all back the bailout.
Boxer testified at the hearing and demanded immediate funding, telling the panel, "We do not have time to debate the nuances of this. We are losing our missions."