November 2015 Church & State | People & Events

A right-wing legal group has accused Americans United of anti-Catholicism because the organization spoke out against the diversion of tax money for religious purposes during Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States.

Adele Keim, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote a column in the Washington, D.C., newspaper The Hill asserting that prior to Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, AU “sent letters of intimidation to city officials in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Their warning? Americans United would be ‘watching them’ to ensure the cities don’t prepare too well for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States.”

Keim noted that AU had roots in Protestant churches when it was founded in 1947 and asserted that the group sought to undermine John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 because he was Catholic.

It is true that in August Americans United sent letters to officials in Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., asking them to respect church-state separation during the papal visit. AU also sent a letter to Cape May, N.J., asking the town not to sponsor a live online broadcast of a papal mass.

But those letters, AU asserts, were designed to protect separation of church and state, not intimidate communities.

Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans Uni­ted’s associate legal director, replied to Keim in an op-ed that ran in The Hill Sept. 29.

“It is favoritism, sponsorship, and funding of religious activity – not spending on public safety – that we object to. Keim’s allegations to the contrary have nothing to do with the truth.”

Luchenitser explained that government entities are constitutionally forbidden from giving special treatment to papal events or from directly supporting the pope’s religious activities while he is in the United States – an issue that has been a problem in the past. As Luchenitser noted, when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1979, Philadelphia used taxpayer money to build a stage for a mass, as well as to rent chairs and a sound system. Public funds also paid for decorations. 

“Our recent letter to governmental officials was designed to make sure that they didn’t make similar mistakes during this year’s papal visit,” Luchenitser wrote. “And as far as we can tell, the host cities appear to be generally complying with the constitutional rules.  Indeed, Philadelphia officials report that a private religious group has agreed to reimburse the city for all municipal expenses relating to the event.”

Luchenitser also pointed out that Americans United has assisted numerous Catholics through its legal work.

“For example, when we represented a group of inmates in Iowa challenging state support of a religious prison program, some of our clients were Catholic, and inmates in the program testified that program staff denigrated the Catholic faith,” he wrote. “Yet Keim’s organization, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, defended the program in court.  Fortunately, a federal appeals court ruled that the state’s aid to the program was unconstitutional.”

In his conclusion, Luchenitser said Americans United works on behalf of all Americans – regardless of their belief system.

“Acting as a watchdog to ensure that governmental officials don’t provide improper aid for a major religious event doesn’t make an organization anti-safety or anti-Catholic,” he said.  “Rather, it demonstrates commitment to the fundamental right of all taxpayers — whether they be Protes­tant or Catholic, Jewish or atheist, Buddhist or Wiccan — not to be compelled to support religious faith.”