US Judge Rules Public Funds Can Be Used for Church Renovations

Article excerpt

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. …