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Restoration of Historical Church Creates Controversy - 2003-05-31

An American landmark is in trouble. Or at least it was in trouble, until the federal government stepped in with a $317,000 grant to restore it. The 280-year-old building in Boston played an important role in the American Revolution. It's exactly the sort of thing the government's "Save America's Treasures" grant program is designed to preserve. There's just one problem: The historic landmark is a church. And because of that, some feel taxpayer dollars should not be used to restore it.

"Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere." Most Americans would be hard pressed to come up with the rest of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem. But the opening line is a mantra almost anyone who grew up in the American public school system would recognize. The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere was written in 1860, and it describes a night in 1775, when two lanterns were hung from the steeple of Boston's Old North Church, signaling to Paul Revere that British ships were sailing by night into Boston harbor. Revere then hopped on a horse and rode 30 kilometers to warn American militia units of the invasion. Today, the Old North Church needs new windows, and the Episcopalian congregation that worships there also wants to make the building more accessible to the physically handicapped. And the U.S. Interior Department is giving the church the money it needs to do that.

"I think it's a shocking abuse of taxpayer dollars to have the United States government pay for the restoration of a church building," said Barry Lynn.

Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a legal watchdog group that monitors government policy, to ensure it reflects the constitutional prohibition against state-supported religion. Mr. Lynn says the guarantee of religious freedom means the congregation, not the government, needs to come up with the money to restore and maintain the church.

"In this country, churches are responsible for their own judgements about how their building will be used, but with that comes the responsibility to make payments yourself, if your building falls into disrepair," he said.

But this building in Boston is much more than just a church, says Marilyn Fennolossa, an attorney for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which helps administer the "Save America's Treasures" grants. Ms. Fennalossa says the Old North Church is an icon, visited by thousands of tourists every year, who aren't going to worship.

"They go because walking into the church, sitting in the pews and looking around, there is this incredible sense of history," she said. "You understand by sitting there that something important happened there. And it's a piece of the greater puzzle that is the Revolutionary War in this country."

That may be the case, but until very recently, houses of worship were barred from receiving any federal preservation money, regardless of their historic significance. The policy dated back to the 1970s, and its purpose was to protect the separation between church and state embodied in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The policy was formalized by the Justice Department in 1995, during the Clinton administration. And in fact, when the Old North Church first applied for the restoration grant, the request was denied. But the Bush administration asked the Justice Department to review the policy, and the Old North Church subsequently got its grant. Ira Lupu is a professor at George Washington University Law School and an expert on the religious establishment and exercise clauses of the first amendment. He says the policy change reflects the opinion of the Bush administration and increasingly the Supreme Court that to deny money to an institution simply because it's religious is discriminatory.

"At various times in American history, the Supreme Court has interpreted 'no establishment of religion' and 'free exercise of religion' in varying ways, depending in part on the civil liberties climate in America, on social forces that are conflicting in America," said Ira Lupu. "The watch word these days, and the important emphasis has been on what I would call 'neutrality' or 'evenhandedness' between secular and religious entities."

Ira Lupu says there's a political divide in America between what he calls "secularists" meaning those who downplay religion's importance and "religionists" people who feel religion is essential to any civilized society. Professor Lupu says for the last 30 years, the Supreme Court has issued decisions mandating a rigid separation between church and state, and this has pleased secularists. But Ira Lupu says recent court decisions allowing the government to indirectly fund religious schools are a sign things are changing.

"You can imagine a Supreme Court, or Courts that say 'Listen, there's no reason the secularists ought to have the Constitution on their side every time there's a fight with the religionists.' That there ought to be an even political fight," he said. "One side not getting the Constitution to play as trump."

And for that reason, Ira Lupu says there's no guarantee a court challenge to the Old North Church's restoration grant would be successful. Nevertheless, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says his group is considering such a challenge. Meanwhile, several other houses of worship could soon receive federal restoration grants among them, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four African-American girls were killed in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement and the 244-year-old Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States.