Historic Battle

Bush Administration Approves Public Funds For Repair Of Historic Churches, As Faith-Based Initiative Attempts 'Revolutionary March' Through Government

Christ Episcopal Church in Boston, Mass., has a major new contributor in its flock -- Uncle Sam.

In May, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton dropped by to announce a federal grant of $317,000 for building repair and renovation. The tax dollars will be used to restore the church's antique windows and make the facility more accessible.

Christ Church better known to the American public as "Old North Church" became the first beneficiary of a change in federal policy that allows active houses of worship to receive historic preservation grants. Religious buildings, said Norton, will henceforth be eligible for public subsidies, even if they are still in use for religious activities.

"This new policy," said Norton, "will bring balance to our historic preservation program and end a discriminatory double standard that has been applied against religious properties. All nationally significant historic structures including those used for religious purposes will now be eligible to receive funding from the Save America's Treasures program."

Thus, the church famous for its role in Paul Revere's legendary Revolutionary War ride became the backdrop for the Bush administration's latest "faith-based" foray. The Old North Church event on May 27 marked yet another milestone in President George W. Bush's relentless crusade to rewrite church-state law in America.

The 280-year-old building is undeniably historic, but it also houses an active Christian congregation with some 150 members. Eucharistic services are held twice on Sunday, with choir practice and Bible studies scheduled regularly during the week. The congregation is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and is governed by a board of nine church members, the bishop and the vicar.

Administration officials, however, brushed aside church-state concerns about the move. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department issued an opinion April 30, insisting that such aid to houses of worship is constitutional. The memorandum repudiated a 1995 Clinton administration ruling that came to the opposite conclusion.

Church-state separationists were sharply critical of the Bush administration action.

"This is a shocking abuse of taxpayer rights," said Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Church congregations ought to pay for the maintenance and repair of churches, historic or otherwise.

"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."

But more importantly, Lynn said the Old North Church event was cleverly staged to advance the Bush administration's larger "faith-based" agenda. He told the Los Angeles Times that administration officials are trying to "push the envelope of funding religious buildings, just like they are trying to fund religious programs to communities."

Other observers drew the same conclusion.

Cox News Service columnist Tom Teepen said he would support the government grants to historic churches "if the Bush administration weren't, termite-like, constantly boring into the wall of separation between church and state in hopes of collapsing it."

The Bush administration, he said, "has earned a huge dose of skepticism on this matter.... Wherever this administration has sensed a chance to undermine church-state separation, it has jumped at it."

Other observers noted that Old North Church could easily raise the money it needs through voluntary donations. Metrowest Daily News in Framingham, Mass., observed, "A church with the national stature of Old North could easily orchestrate a fund-raiser that would surely garner support from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit each year and the many businesses that call Boston home.... This grant to the Old North Church sets a dangerous precedent for government funding of restorations, expansions and basic maintenance of religious institutions around the country few of which could claim the historical credentials of Old North."

Evidence of the broader agenda came when Jim Towey, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, showed up at the Boston event.

Towey told the Los Angeles Times, "The president's point here is, this isn't about funding churches. This is about saving a national treasure."

According to the Boston Globe, Towey also redmarked, "From the time he took office, President Bush has sought to end discrimination against faith-based organizations. His faith-based initiative is not about favoring religion, religious properties or faith-based orgdanizations, but simply about treating them fairly."

Towey told reporters that the Old North Church grant is just the beginning. Other potential grantees he listed include Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (site of the infamous 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing) and Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in America. (Touro Synagogue has already applied for a grant.)

Observers noted that the list dovetails closely with religious and racial constituencies being targeted by Bush's political advisers in the 2004 elections. White House strategists hope to win a larger share of the Jewish and African-American vote, two demographic groups that historically have gone heavily to the Democrats. Roman Catholic voters are also being targeted.

The change in church-state policy also pleased the administration's Religious Right supporters.

Jim Davids of the Christian Legal Society told Family News in Focus that the so-called "separation of church and state" theory is really just an excuse for discriminating against churches, and he's glad the administration is not buying it.

Critics have charged that the White House has often used the faith-based initiative as a means of recruiting political support. For example, Nueva Esperanza, a Philadelphia ministry, was given a $2.4-million grant through the Compassion Capital Fund. On May 15, the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., head of the group, returned the favor by inviting Bush to speak at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, an annual event the organization sponsors.

At the breakfast, administration officials announced a new partnership with a spinoff of Nueva Esperanza that will do AIDS education within the Hispanic community. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said opposition to the administration's faith-based initiative is "absurd."

"How are we going to change America if we don't team up with you and other faith-based organizations across America?" Thompson asked. "That's where the action is. That's where the results are."

Despite its recent gestures, Bush's "armies of compassion" have suffered some major defections in recent weeks.

For example, Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, an evangelical poverty-fighting group, has apparently soured on the administration's sincerity about helping low-income families. Wallis, one of the most enthusiastic early proponents of the Bush faith-based initiative, now questions the White House's commitment to helping the poor.

"I am within a hair's breadth of concluding that the faith-based initiative is a cyncical cover for ignoring the poor."
- Ron Sider,
Evangelicals for
Social Action

Wallis and a delegation of religious leaders met with the White House domestic policy staff June 9 to complain about a lack of action on behalf of poor people. The group delivered a letter to Bush expressing outrage.

The statement, signed by 34 religious leaders, said, "Many of us have supported your faith-based initiative from the beginning of the administration.... But while we have consistently backed faith-based approaches to poverty reduction, we have also insisted they must be accompanied by policies that really do assist low-income families and children as they seek self-sufficiency."

Charging that the massive administration-supported tax cut recently approved by Congress provides "virtually no support for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, while those at the top reap windfalls," the letter adds, "Many are feeling betrayed. The lack of a consistent, coherent, and integrated domestic policy that benefits low-income people makes our continued support for your faith-based initiative increasingly untenable."

Among the signers of the missive were leaders of Bush's own United Methodist denomination, including Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Bishop Donald A. Ott, coordinator of the United Methodist Council of Bishops Initiative on Children and Poverty, and Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

According to the Associated Baptist Press (ABP), Wallis and other religious leaders emerged from their meeting with White House officials without much progress.

"When money is being diverted to war and homeland security plus a big tax cut, there is little left for poor people," Wallis said, at a June 10 press briefing.

Charging that "this government is not living up to its side of the bargain," he said faith-based groups have done their part but the Bush administration has shut religious leaders out of discussions about social policy.

"The president has said that the faith and community leaders need to be at the table when social policy is talked about, and we haven't been," Wallis complained. "We're [only] at the table when faith-based initiatives are talked about."

Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action was even more blunt. He told ABP, "I am within a hair's breadth of concluding that the faith-based initiative is a cynical cover for ignoring the poor."

White House official Towey downplayed the religious leaders' concerns.

In an interview with ABP, he said, "We feel like the dialogue is good."

Noting that he has "a lot of respect for Jim and Ron," Towey suggested that Bush and the religious leaders merely have differences about how to help the poor.

Said Towey, "I think the president has been trying to bring new resources to the table; the question is, 'What is the most effective way of doing it?' You look at government spending, but you also look at effective use of resources."

Towey claimed the tax cuts will help the poor by spurring job creation.

"When I go to homeless shelters, drug treatment programs in America, or prisons with inmates about to get out, one of their top concerns is, 'I need to find a job,'" he said. "And the president believes the tax cuts will stimulate the economy and job growth. This ultimately will help the poor."

Some critics think the Bush faith-based initiative has been as much about politics as helping the poor all along. The initiative certainly advances the major Religious Right goal of undermining church-state separation.

The June issue of Christianity Today reports that Towey recently met with a delegation of evangelicals and assured them that "Bush is pushing ahead so that we can have a cross on the wall and can have voluntary prayer" at publicly funded ministries. According to the magazine, one unnamed White House aide said, "It is a revolutionary march through the institutions."

Towey also insisted that the Bush administration is pressing forward with regulatory and legislative changes that allow religious groups to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds in publicly funded programs.

"The president's executive order in December was to extend hiring rights [to churches]," said Towey. "But there are tangled and contradictory laws in that area. There is embedded civil rights language in a number of laws."

The magazine said Towey and the Bush administration hope to go after the laws one by one.

"We are asking Congress to make the laws consistent," he said.

The practical effect of this proposal is simple, but dramatic. As the change is put in place and as federal agencies contract with more religious groups to provide services, fewer and fewer publicly funded jobs will be covered by the full range of civil rights laws that now apply. Americans who are members of the "wrong" religions will not be eligible to work at a widening array of federal programs.

That drive is well under way. The administration's allies in Congress are pushing for employment discrimination provisions in a range of federal programs, including job training, Americorps/VISTA and other social services.

On June 12, a House Education and Workforce panel on education reform adopted a Head Start overhaul that allows churches to participate in the popular educational program and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring staff.

The measure was approved on a party line vote, with Republicans supporting the change and Democrats opposing it.

Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House panel, defended the alteration.

"Faith-based organizations cannot be expected to sustain their religious mission without the ability to employ individuals who...practice their faith," said Castle, "because it's that faith that motivates them to serve."

But Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) disagreed.

"To have legislation that would try to convince faith-based institutions and organizations that they ought to discriminate I don't understand it," he said. "It's amazing to me."

The faith-based job discrimination provisions sought by the Bush administration are expected to pass in the House, where Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other allies of the president control the floor. Although staunch separationists such as Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) are waging valiant fights against the measures, the House machinery is difficult to stop.

However, things are different in the Senate where the rules of deliberation make it easier for senators to block bad legislation. There Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have successfully stalled faith-based schemes and are expected to do so again in the upcoming months.

Church-state separationists will be watching closely.