U.S. helping renovate historic churches doesn’t offend First Amendment

Sunday, July 6, 2003

“One if by land, two if by sea.” Thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, every schoolchild can recite the story of how two lanterns hung in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church in 1775 helped launch the American War of Independence.

Now, 228 years after the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the windows of the Old North Church need renovation – and our tax dollars are going to pay for it. That’s because the Bush administration has lifted longstanding restrictions on historic preservation grants to places of worship that still house active congregations.

Outrageous violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Or fair treatment for religious institutions that are also historic sites? That all depends on whom you ask.

“Somebody needs to spread the alarm that the Bush administration is taxing people to support houses of worship,” proclaims Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Old North Church is historic, but it’s a church, not a museum, and is still used for services every Sunday.”

“Some of the most notable buildings in our cities are churches,” writes law professor Eugene Volokh in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. “Any sensible historical and architectural preservation program must include them as well as secular buildings.”

Welcome to the latest conflict in the ongoing fight over the constitutionality of President Bush’s “faith-based initiative” – a controversial effort to make it easier for religious groups to receive government money under a variety of federal programs.

At first blush, the issue may seem straightforward. If giving federal dollars to renovate a church doesn’t violate the establishment clause, what does? Whatever the meaning of “no establishment,” surely it includes no direct government funding of religion.

But on closer examination, is the preservation grant to the Old North Church really government support for religion – or does it represent equal treatment for religious and nonreligious historic sites?

It’s true that the Old North Church is an active house of worship with a congregation of 150 people. But it’s also a museum of American history with more than 500,000 visitors every year. If the American people expect (and the government requires through historic-preservation laws) this small congregation to maintain the historical integrity of the church and receive a constant stream of tourists, then why shouldn’t tax dollars help pay for part of needed renovations?

The congregation has already addressed some of the First Amendment concerns by setting up a foundation separate from the church that will receive the federal grant. Even with this safeguard, however, some still argue that government money will indirectly advance the religious mission of the church by freeing up funds that might have otherwise been used for renovation.

But asking the congregation to shoulder the entire burden of preserving a much-visited historic treasure strikes me as unfair – and not mandated by the First Amendment. As long as the government’s purpose is entirely secular (as it clearly is in the laws providing funds for historic preservation), then government grants should be used to repair and renovate a wide range of important historic sites, including those that may still have religious uses.

Other efforts by the Bush administration to expand government funding to religious groups remain highly problematic. (Unlike the grants for historic preservation, providing tax support to religious groups for faith-based social services raises serious establishment clause questions.)

But lifting this restriction on historic sites with religious uses is the right thing to do. Unless blocked by litigation, the Old North Church Foundation will soon receive $317,000 through the Save America’s Treasures program. Taxpayers are picking up the tab for preserving a place that will forever live in the story of American freedom – and that’s as it should be.

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