The state of church vs. state

April 24, 2006

Last we left it, the church-state separation advocates were suing to keep the California mission advocates from spending taxpayer money on historic buildings that sometimes hold church services.

Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, we could be in the same spot we were in four years ago, when Sen. Barbara Boxer of California first proposed investing millions of Interior Department dollars into repairing the Golden State's 21 missions. Many of them are in such disrepair that pieces of the buildings have tumbled unexpectedly to the ground. At least one mission was threatened with condemnation.

To rewind just a bit: In fall 2004 – after a few years of prodding by the Democratic senator – Congress passed a bill authorizing the Interior Department to give $10 million to the California Missions Foundation. The foundation oversees the missions, which are the state's most visited historical landmarks. They need at least $50 million in repairs and visitor improvements, not to mention money to conserve Spanish colonial-era paintings, furniture, garments and documents.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State viewed the $10 million as yet another example of Washington's practice of sending federal money to historic structures that also are used as houses of worship – as Congress has done for Boston's Old North Church and Rhode Island's Touro Synagogue.


Shortly after President Bush signed Boxer's bill, the advocacy group sued to block the expenditure, noting that the Catholic Church owns 19 of the missions that stretch from San Diego to north of Sonoma, and that Masses are regularly celebrated at most of them.

The First Amendment, the group argued, requires houses of worship to provide money for their own upkeep and maintenance. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia froze the missions funding as the suit progressed.

In January, the organization dropped its suit, noting that Congress never voted to actually cut the $10 million check – which in Washington parlance is known as an “appropriation.”

Which brings us up to date, and to a question: What happens now?

Be certain that Boxer, who has made missions funding a signature cause, is not giving up. She plans, said a spokeswoman, to “continue to pursue funding . . . under our bill and through other mechanisms.”

Be certain as well that if Boxer tries again to get Congress to spend some of this $10 million, Americans United for Separation of Church and State will sue again.

Which raises another question: Is the missions funding issue headed for a merry-go-round of attempted appropriations and lawsuits?

“With no public money headed for the collection plate, we have agreed to drop the suit for now,” said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director for Americans United. “We will continue to monitor the situation, and, if Congress decides to fund the missions, we will go to court again. The suit can be refiled with the same plaintiffs should the federal government decide to appropriate tax money for the mission churches.”


In the meantime, missions advocates are finding money elsewhere – either through private foundations or by applying for federal grants that require competition.

Boxer recently won $300,000 for the Mission San Miguel, north of San Luis Obispo, from the Save America's Treasures program, a pool of money for which all historic places must compete.

Knox Mellon, the California Missions Foundation executive director who insists Washington money won't be spent for religious purposes, said his foundation has raised just more than $1 million. It recently gave $100,000 to Mission San Miguel.

The foundation also won $65,000 from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation to spend on the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles County, and $150,000 from the Louise M. Davies Foundation for the San Juan Bautista mission in San Benito County.

These are relatively small amounts compared with the tantalizing $10 million that is dangling out there – approved by Congress, approved by the president, needed by the missions, but virtually frozen by the prospect that its expenditure once again may become a matter for the courts.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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