Mission Impossible: U.S. Constitution Does Not Allow Government to Give 'Faith-Based' Funding to Catholic Churches in California, Says Americans United Lawsuit

By Leaming, Jeremy | Church & State, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Mission Impossible: U.S. Constitution Does Not Allow Government to Give 'Faith-Based' Funding to Catholic Churches in California, Says Americans United Lawsuit


Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State


On Feb. 28, 1811, President James Madison vetoed a bill granting a parcel of land in the Mississippi territory to a Baptist church.

In a message to the House of Representatives, Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, said the bill "comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

On Nov. 30, 2004, President George W. Bush took a different course. Bush signed into law H.R. 1446, which over a five-year stretch will pump $10 million into restoring and repairing Roman Catholic missions in California. Bush's action represents a significant advance of his much-touted "faith-based" initiative.

That action also prompted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to file a lawsuit in federal court that will test the boundaries of Bush's faith-based agenda.

"Houses of worship must be maintained by their congregations, not the federal government," Lynn said in a press statement about the Doe v. Norton lawsuit. "All but two of these missions house active congregations and hold regular worship services. They are not museums.

"If this type of assistance is upheld, every house of worship in America that is deemed 'historic' could demand upkeep and repair courtesy of the taxpayer," Lynn added.

The California Missions Preservation Act would also, as Bush's press secretary noted in a statement about the bill, help "preserve mission artwork and artifacts."

Americans United had urged both chambers of Congress to defeat the bill, resisting that it violates the Constitution and would represent a major advancement for the administration's faith-based initiative.

Spain, England and other European countries with a tradition of government support for religion have for many years used public funds to repair and tidy up houses of worship and aging religious symbols. But in America, the First Amendment traditionally has barred public financing of religion. Religious groups have been capable and responsible for the upkeep, repair and expansion of their worship sites. In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney raised more than $189 million to build a new Catholic cathedral that opened in 2002.

In numerous letters to lawmakers, Americans United touted the long-standing principle of church-state separation and how that tradition would be harmed by the passage of the missions act. For starters, Americans United argued, passage of the measure would likely prompt more audacious actions by the White House to expand the faith-based initiative.

Lynn testified against the bill before a Senate committee in March.

"Preservation of historic buildings is important," Lynn told the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, "but preservation of the constitutional right to religious liberty is vital. These missions are houses of worship; they are not simply museums. 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."

The bill's supporters, however, dismissed the concerns of Americans United and other public interest groups, claiming the law included safeguards against constitutional violations. The federal government's only intent, they said, was to save historic buildings, not support religion.

Advocates also argued that the measure simply allowed for the federal grants to be issued to the California Missions Foundation, a private non-profit entity created in 1998 to raise money for repairing and restoring the state's missions. The bill states that the Foundation is responsible for applying for the grants from the Secretary of the Interior, which would entail listing the structures and artifacts and other sundries that would need repairing or restoration. …

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