Historic Mistake

Old North Church And Our Tax Dollars

Years ago when I was younger and had fewer gray hairs, I taught school in Boston. One of my courses examined Boston's history. On Wednes­day afternoons, I'd take the students on a tour of interesting sites. I was always surprised that many of the young people who had lived in Boston their entire lives had never visited some of these places.

One stop was, of course, Old North Church, site of the famous lanterns hung for Paul Revere an event so eloquently dramatized in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I don't remember that the windows of the structure had any problems at that time, 30 years ago, but they apparently do now.

Indeed, the Bush administration has just given the church a grant of $317,000 to fix them.

One day last month, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton left her post in Washington long enough to go to Boston with "Faith Czar" James Towey to announce the grant with great fanfare. Who could possibly oppose this restoration of American heritage? The next day she got the answer in almost every newspaper in the country: Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

It bothers me that the administration now wants to fund, not only religious ministries, but also houses of worship that retain active congregations. Old North Church has a worshipping congregation of Episcopalians that meets twice every Sunday, with Bible studies and choir practices several nights during the week. It is impossible for me to figure out how fixing the windows (and doing whatever other repairs it might need in the future) cannot be viewed as giving tax dollars to the promotion of religion.

The more I learned about the church, the more I dug in my heels. This site gets 500,000 visitors each year. Has anyone thought of asking them for a donation to fix the leaks? Massachusetts has thousands of businesses, large and small, which presumably want to protect the history of the commonwealth. Did anyone ask them for financial help? Apparently not, which is why the congregation turned to Uncle Sam.

The Rev. Stephen Ayres, the vicar of the church, said at a news conference that he is aware of the potential problem of having churches accept money from the government.

"Many are concerned," he said, "that religious institutions may lose their moral and prophetic voice if we become too dependent on government support. We must always ask ourselves whether receiving government grants will compromise our vocation to remind our representatives of God's concern for peace and for the care of the poor and marginalized."

Yes, that's what will happen. Nevertheless, he took the money anyway.

I understand that some folks would like to make an exception in the case of "historic" religious buildings, but the slope is very slippery from Old North Church down. Every church has a history of some kind, and if some church official wants to preserve the pew where William Howard Taft sat or the site of the baptism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, I'm sure he or she would get an open ear (and possibly, a hand) in Washington.

I'm a strong believer that churches and other religious entities should have the right to resist forced "landmarking" that ends up restricting their power to control their internal building decisions. However, when you accept that status, it should not come with a guarantee of financial support so long as you have parishioners who can contribute to repairs themselves. The U.S. Treasury is simply not a church building fund.

The Atlanta Constitution's well-respected columnist Tom Teepen wrote that if this historic rebuilding was the only "faith-based initiative" of the Bush administration, even he might overlook the constitutional issue. But he noted this is just part of a bigger agenda to fund religion with tax dollars.

I made exactly that point to Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio: "This is part and parcel of an overall plan by the Bush administration that apparently believes that every social problem, and now every architectural problem, should be solved by giving money to religious institutions."

Indeed, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced plans to fund places of worship that provide social services in their communities. If your church basement is used for a meals program for the hungry 20 percent of the time, you would be entitled to 20 percent funding of the ceiling tiles. This would create ridiculous entanglement problems between church and state. How would we know what percentage of time the facility was actually being used for each purpose? Should we move those spy cameras that are in many big cities to photograph people going through red lights into the vestibules of the sanctuaries of churches with government grants?

The Supreme Court got it right in a 1973 case, PEARL v. Nyquist, when it said bluntly: "If the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair."

I love Old North Church, just like I enjoy the wilderness places still left in America. I give voluntarily to help preserve these places. However, I also revere the Constitution. Let's preserve it.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.