Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal court to block taxpayer funding of mission churches in California.
The Americans United lawsuit targets a recently enacted piece of legislation, the California Missions Preservation Act, which provides $10 million in federal funds to "restore and repair" 21 mission churches, 19 of which are owned by the Roman Catholic Church and have active congregations.
Proponents of the aid argue that the missions are historic and should be preserved with government funds. But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the bill amounts to taxpayer-supported religion.
"Houses of worship must be maintained by their members, not the federal government," Lynn said. "All but two of these missions house active congregations and hold regular worship services. They are not museums."
Lynn said that while Americans United appreciates the historic nature of the missions, it is vital that separation of church and state be maintained.
"If this type of assistance is upheld, every house of worship in America that is deemed 'historic' could demand upkeep and repair courtesy of the taxpayer," Lynn said. "The Constitution simply does not allow the government to force a taxpayer to subsidize the maintenance of houses of worship. That's a core principle of separation of church and state:"
Lynn noted that it was forced support for religion that first inspired leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to wage a national effort to enact church-state separation.
"This bill is a backdoor church tax," Lynn said. "It's a throwback to a time when the state forced everyone to support certain churches, whether they belonged to them or not."
The bill, H.R. 1446, was signed into law Nov. 30 by President George W. Bush. It requires the Secretary of Interior to make grants to the California Missions Foundation to repair the missions and their "artifacts." AU notes that many of those artifacts are, in fact, religious symbols and artwork.
AU's lawsuit, Doe v. Norton, includes several California taxpayers as plaintiffs. It was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton was named as the defendant.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in the safeguarding religious freedom.