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From bounce-aanews=brownh=hartford-hwp.com@zip.mail-list.com Wed Dec 19 22:00:06 2001
Subject: AANEWS for Wednesday, December 19, 2001
Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2001 18:02:36 -0500
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From: owner-aanews@atheists.org
To: brownh@hartford-hwp.com

Lieberman—All should pay for repairs, upkeep of historic churches—program could cost millions

American Atheists, #989, 19 December 2001

Sen. Joseph Lieberman told a church audience on Monday that government should repair historic houses of worship as part of a program to preserve sacred places.

We can't tell American history...without talking about the history of our sacred places, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate declared. We can't have a strong future for our community without safeguarding the buildings (that are used for worship). Lieberman suggested that President Bush's federal faith-based initiative now being considered on Capitol Hill could play a key role in the rehabilitation of dilapidated churches, synagogues and mosques across the nation. Lieberman is the Democratic point man on crafting a compromise version of earlier legislation passed in the House of Representatives that would allow religious groups to accept public funds in order to operate faith-based social services, but require them to adhere to local and state anti-discrimination statutes.

Later, Lieberman spoke at the Winthrop Avenue Church in New Haven, Conn., and used the occasion to unveil a list of what he said where ten houses of worship with historic significance and in serious need of repair. Recalling his own visit to the building in the late 1960s when it served as a synagogue, Lieberman told worshippers, It's really quite nostalgic to be here. He added that religious groups were already playing a vital role in the delivery of faith-based social programs, and said that the nation's houses of worship are anchoring centers of community service and moral leadership.

The list of churches and other worship facilities ostensibly needing rehabilitation was compiled by a group known as Partners for Sacred Places, which describes itself as the only national, non-sectarian, non-profit organization dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of America's older religious properties. Lieberman's Monday appearance at the two churches was also part of a new campaign, Stakeholders for Sacred Places, which is described as an initiative to build 12 to 15 new community-based, religious properties programs around the country. The program would train local community advocates and mobilize preservation groups, in part, to lobby for government funds in order to repair houses of worship.

Entitlement Programs For Church Repairs, Upkeep?

The 'establishment of religion clause' of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another ... No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa...

-- Justice Hugo Black, opinion in EVERSON v. BOARD OF EDUCATION

Despite constitutional prohibitions, the inviting prospect of using public tax money to repair and maintain houses of worship is, in the minds of a number of political and clerical leaders, an idea whose time has come.

Partners for Sacred Places suggests that programs to aid churches are justified since religious groups contribute extensively to their surrounding communities. The group claims, for instance, that more than 50% of congregations use their older buildings to meet basic needs through food and clothing, and that The average congregation provides over 5,300 hours of volunteer support. This, according to a self-published PSP survey, translates into a value of between $100,000 and $140,000 per year from churches. The group adds, Twenty five percent of all studied congregations are facing major structural problems.

Similar claims have been made in defense of President Bush's faith-based initiative -- that religious groups contribute enormous value outside of the government welfare system, and thus deserve public support.

A lot of this is smoke and mirrors, says Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists. Even if this is all true, it's merely stating what churches say about themselves -- that they do all sorts of community projects. But now they want us to pay for it all, and the churches, mosques and temples that supposedly house these social programs.

Johnson added that religious groups already receive lavish tax exemption, and under special rights legislation such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, are effectively immune to many local and state land use ordinances.

Another claim found in a Partners study was that The average congregation will have to spend more than $200,000 over the next several years to repair its building, straining the budgets of even the most affluent church and synagogues. Johnson questioned the figure, and said that even if it were true, the bill to the taxpayers would be staggering.

We simply don't know how much money is passing through America's churches and other religious groups, Johnson noted. The IRS doesn't track that money, and religious groups often set up dummy-corporations to shelter income ranging from donations to investments.

Johnson added, There are about 350,000 houses of worship in the U.S., and using this figure we have a whopping $75 billion dollar price tag. I don't think the average taxpayer wants to pick up that expense, and the typical Atheist or freethinker should certainly not be taxed for this 'religion rebate.'

Advocacy groups, political leaders and the Bush administration, though, have been gradually promoting the idea of using public funds to rehabilitate and maintain houses of worship. During his tenure as Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, for instance, John DiIulio praised the efforts of the Partners group, and called for government to begin paying for bricks-and-mortar repair to dilapidated houses of worship. Last April, prior to his resignation from the White House position, DiIulio addressed a Partners for Sacred Places banquet in Philadelphia, and excoriated those where behind the curve in thinking of our older religious properties as civic assets.

When those building crumble, said DiIulio, when the deferred maintenance catches up, the preschool and the prison ministry and the day-care center and the after-school latchkey learning program ... crumble and go away too. They just don't move to the Ramada Inn.

DiIulio also criticized a 1995 administrative ruling that prohibits the use of federal National Park Service money for the rehabilitation of maintenance of any religious properties, adding that the Bush administration considered the restriction to be unfriendly.

Deceiving Taxpayers?

Lieberman's call for government entitlements was the kick-off event to publicize the Partners For Sacred Places latest report, 10 Sacred Places to Save. The document lists ten congregations throughout the country which are engaged in social services, such as the Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in Plainfield, N.J. But it is unclear whether money is needed to strengthen program delivering services to the poor, or maintain architectural and structural features of buildings. That congregation, according to Partners, needs to raise $4 million to replace the entire cast stone facade of the Gothic Revival Church -- one stone at a time.

Another church looking for taxpayer aid is the Acts of the Apostles Church in Jesus Christ, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It needs $1.2 million to repair the tower and other portions of its turn-of-the-century facility.

But these costs pale when compared to the larger agenda being promoted by Partners and its supporters. This report, '10 Sacred Places to Save,' could have been called '10,000 Sacred Places to Save,' because this is just the tip of the iceberg, gushed Diane Cohen, co-director of the organization.

For further information:

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faithlob (Background on the federal faith-based initiative)

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faith37.htm (More mixed signals on bush faith-based funding plan, 12/8/01)

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faith36.htm (Faith-based office czar leaving post, 8/19/01)

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faith32.htm (Bush open to compromise on Lieberman faith-based bill, 7/29/01)

http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/faith13.htm (DiIulio bombshell: We may pay for 'faith-based' bricks-and-mortar..., 4/8/01)