Union Tribune

March 10, 2004
Mission funding hits constitutional roadblock


WASHINGTON At one time, it seemed the plodding pace of government might thwart a congressional plan to spend $10 million to repair California's aging missions.

Now it appears the holdup may be the U.S. Constitution.

Some opponents of the funding are complaining that because 19 of the state's 21 missions are active churches, giving them federal money would violate the First Amendment's provision separating church and state.

"Preservation of historic buildings is important, but the preservation of the constitutional right to religious liberty is vital," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "These missions are houses of worship; they are not simply museums."

Lynn spoke yesterday at a congressional hearing to examine concerns about the bill.

Two California Democrats who typically champion the separation of church and state, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are pushing a proposal that would give the missions $10 million to fix crumbling adobe walls and termite-eaten wood and conserve eroding ruins and fragile artifacts that the missions' founding priests brought to California in the 1700s.

"I am a believer in separation of church and state," Boxer told the Subcommittee on National Parks, part of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee. "We have a way to do (this) that . . . avoids the church-state issue."

The Bush administration opposes the funding, but not on constitutional grounds.

"We cannot support this new federal funding commitment at a time when we are trying to focus our available resources on taking care of existing National Park Service responsibilities," said P. Daniel Smith, a special assistant to the director of the National Park Service, according to The Associated Press.

"Nor can we support legislative earmarks that would effectively take limited and critically needed historic preservation operations funding away and divert it to these specific purposes."

Under Boxer's plan, money would go to the California Missions Foundation, a nonprofit group trying to raise $50 million in private donations to make structural repairs, for visitor-related improvements and to preserve Spanish colonial-era paintings, furniture, clerical garments and fragile documents.

Her bill directs the Interior Department to "ensure that the purpose of a grant . . . is secular, does not promote religion and seeks to protect those qualities that are historically significant."

Though all the missions are considered state historic landmarks, only seven are national historic landmarks. The Catholic Church, which created the missions that stretch from San Diego to north of Sonoma, owns 19 of them. Masses are regularly celebrated at those 19. The state of California owns two missions.

In 2002, 5.3 million people visited the missions, making them the third most-visited historical attractions in the state.

Critics point out that the Supreme Court has ruled that states "may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place" or "maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair."

"It is impossible to separate the historical from the spiritual and expect that government funds will only go to the former," said Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ. "Can a person in a pew observing a government-funded restored painting of the Virgin Mary be expected to ignore the religious impulse it was meant to convey? I don't think so."

Asked if Lynn had made a persuasive argument, subcommittee chairman Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyoming, said it was difficult to say how he would proceed.

"I'm wondering if there is a legitimate way to separate the historic aspect of the building from the religious aspect," said Thomas, who said the full Energy Committee should vote on the plan soon. "I just don't know."

Recent efforts to provide state funding foundered because of the state's budget deficit.

The bill's proponents have worked two years to get federal money. In October, no constitutional issues publicly surfaced as the House passed its own plan to spend $10 million on mission renovations.

Because Thomas insisted on a hearing in the Senate, mission advocates worried they might run out of time to line up the bill for the funding process that happens in the early months of the year.

Now that hearings are under way, the new wrinkle is the church-state issue.

Mission San Diego de Alcala, which needs $2 million to repair a 200-year-old friary, is the home church to 2,500 families that regularly worship there.

Janet Bartel, a San Diego mission historian, said the mission has two separate accounts one for archaeological and historic preservation and the other for church activities. Federal money would go only to the former, Bartel said.

"We could not buy something like chalices or vestments for the priest," she said. "The only thing it could go for in the old mission church is the adobe structure or the roof."

Mission San Miguel, which needs as much as $15 million for earthquake retrofitting and to fix cracks in the adobe foundation, holds services for about 200 parish families on Sundays and weekday mornings, said the mission's Bill Short. The building, in San Luis Obispo County, was closed temporarily after being damaged in December's San Simeon earthquake.

"The rest of the time, the mission church was open as a public place to visit, so we consider that it has served multiple purposes for many, many years," Short said.