TOPICS > Politics

Religious Properties: Federal Money for Historic Religious Buildings

July 16, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Every year some 500,000 tourists visit Boston’s Old North Church to hear the story of the patriot who hung two lanterns from the steeple to signal Paul Revere that the British were coming by sea. The 280-year-old historic landmark is also an Episcopal congregation with 150 members. This May, Old North received an Interior Department grant of $317,000 to restore its deteriorating windows. It’s the first federal grant to an active church, and while it’s not a huge amount of money, it is a significant reversal of federal policy.

As candidate and then as president, Mr. Bush has placed a high priority on his drive to break down the barriers to government funding of religious organizations. Barry Lind, the head of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and a United Church of Christ minister, says the grant is clear evidence of the Bush administration’s intention to blur the line between church and state.

BARRY LYNN, Americans United for Separation of Church and State: As long as there’s an act of congregation there, any support for the structure of that building is going to mightily benefit the worshippers every Saturday or Sunday. And one thing our Constitution, I think is still clear about, is that the United States Government cannot build or repair churches used for religious purposes.

RAY SUAREZ: The director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives says the grant to Old North is a matter of fairness.

JIM TOWEY, White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives: It’s about any discrimination against faith-based groups like old church. The idea that that’s proposing or advancing, on Sunday they have 150 worshippers, I think that’s nonsense.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s at issue here is the so-called establishment clause to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Until this spring, religious institution has been blocked from receiving federal preservation funds. Now, under the Interior Department’s “Save America’s Treasures” program, any house of worship that meets historic and architectural standards is eligible for federal funds.

JIM TOWEY: The president feels it’s about time that these groups should not be penalized just because they were religious.

RAY SUAREZ: Opponents of the new funding say they aren’t convinced with the White House’s historic preservation argument. For one, they say, cash can transfer from one use to another. So if a congregation gets a government subsidy for maintaining its historic building, that frees up money that can be used for ministry. Welton Gaddy is a Baptist minister and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan group of 65 faith traditions. He is suspicious behind the motives behind their sudden funding of churches.

WELTON GADDY, Interfaith Alliance: This was an easy way to get federal money into the coffer of a church without challenge. And can, politically, at some point in the future be used as a precedent-setting act for expanding expenditures to cover ministry itself, which is the purpose of the faith-based initiative.

RAY SUAREZ: Two other institutions with an important role in the nation’s early history are applying for federal funds: The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, Maryland and Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in America.

SPOKESPERSON: The people that came here and founded Touro Synagogue came here for the same reasons that pilgrims came to America, and that’s really just freedom.

RAY SUAREZ: The building dates back to 1763. The first religious structure to be named a national historic site in the 1940s, the synagogue presently has a congregation of 120. Inside almost everything is original and deteriorating. Under the linen covering, the plaster is splintered and eroded.

MICHAEL BALABAN, Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue: We can’t just go to the general hardware store to pick up the materials to repair. We need to make sure we’re doing it in the most authentic way possible.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Balaban heads the Society of Friends of Touro Synagogue, the group is raising $2.5 million to preserve the building and add a visitor center to minimize the wear and tear of 30,000 tourists. They’ve applied for a $750,000 federal grant that Balaban says will jump start their fundraising.

MICHAEL BALABAN: It just elevates us as a more serious level of distinction that really just drives the point home of how important the structure is.

RAY SUAREZ: In Baltimore, preservationists at the Basilica of the Assumption have a much different challenge. Years of busy liturgical redecoration have covered up architect Benjamin Latrobe’s simple sunlit sanctuary. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century. Robert Lancelotta, executive vice president of the Basilica of the Assumption’s historic trust, is hoping a Save America’s Treasures Grant will bolster the $25 million campaign to restore the cathedral.

ROBERT LANCELOTTA, Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust: If you study architecture this is one of the buildings you’ll study. It’s the most complete work of Benjamin LaTrobe.

RAY SUAREZ: You may be more familiar with another LaTrobe design: the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The cathedral has many of the same features. The neo-classical style was chosen by the first bishop of Maryland, John Carol, who wanted the young country’s first Roman Catholic Cathedral to be an American building.

ROBERT LANCELOTTA: He realizes that if they build a cathedral in a Gothic style it would remind people of Europe and the old world, and he really wanted Catholics to be part of the American society and the American scene, so he uses the same type of style that the founding fathers were using in Washington, D.C.

RAY SUAREZ: In the Interior, Latrobe’s vision would be reborn with a lighter, simpler paint scheme, white marble floors and the reintroduction of clear glass windows in the knave.

ROBERT LANCELOTTA: The idea is to restore lighting that would have been here when the building was first finished.

RAY SUAREZ: Eight stories above, inside the eye of the main dome, the original inner dome with 24 skylights was covered over during World War II.

SPOKESMAN: That whole area was punctuated by these skylights.

RAY SUAREZ: Four skylights, exactly copies of Latrobe’s originals, have already been reinstalled — 20 more skylights will be added in the next knew days. Both the campaigns to restore the basilica and to restore the synagogue are run through nonprofit organizations, separate from the congregation’s worship life. Welton Gaddy welcomes such efforts to separate the historic structure from its religious purpose.

WELTON GADDY, Interfaith Alliance: There was an effort not just to receive the money but to set up a shield between the government and the congregation that would allow the integrity of the congregation to persist in its life, while the government money was flowing only to a structure that’s visited by tourists. Now, why be concerned about that at all — since I am open to that — because the historical preservation grants occur in an environment in which there is a trained call to faith based initiative that is flying across this country changing the whole scenario of church-state relations in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: Last December after the failure of the Senate to pass legislation to promote the president’s faith-based initiative, President Bush ordered federal agencies to allow religious charities to compete for government contracts. This spring the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a plan to provide religious groups with federal building grants. Then in May, the Interior Department announced their grants to Old North Church. The number and nature of the various government programs worry Weldon Gaddy.

WELDON GADDY: When you have the federal government starting to fund programs in local churches, synagogues, mosques, then you have the leaders of those religious institutions beginning to ask, “how can we keep this funding coming?” When in the history of religion have you ever known a profit who would speak truth to power when the power was paying the prophet’s salary? And that’s where you go here.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Lancelotta of the Basilica of the Assumption disagrees.

ROBERT LANCELOTTA: I have no fear whatsoever that the grant would be misused in that way. It’s a very small amount of money compared to the size of this project. And what we are doing is we’re preserving the building for the community, for our country, for the church.

RAY SUAREZ: And Jim Towey says Gaddy’s concerns about state interference deny churches their places in the nation’s history.

JIM TOWEY: To tell a church that you’ve got to cease having anyone stepping foot in there to pray before we can consider your overwhelmingly and significant contribution to American history, the president thinks that’s absurd because what it’s doing is saying that the only history we are going to preserve in America is the secular side when in fact America’s history as evident in Old North Church, is interwoven with sacred places.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s no disagreements about these buildings. They are irreplaceable parts of American history. But at the same time, any money religious groups don’t have to spend on their buildings is freed up for strictly religious purposes. That’s the conflict at the heart of his encounter between faith and history.