The Bush administration has announced that houses of worship deemed "historic" can get direct government support courtesy of the taxpayer, even if they have an active congregation and are still used regularly for worship services.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced the new policy at an event at Boston's Old North Church today. Norton said $317,000 will be allocated for repair and restoration of the church building.
The church, constructed in 1723 and famous as the signaling post for Paul Revere at the start of the American Revolution, remains an active Episcopal congregation.
"Somebody needs to spread the alarm that the Bush administration is taxing people to support houses of worship," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government funding for the repair and upkeep of houses of worship clearly violates the Constitution."
Lynn said the new policy amounts to little more than taxpayer-funded religion.
"This is a shocking abuse of taxpayer rights," said Lynn. "Church congregations ought to pay for the maintenance and repair of churches, historic or otherwise."
Lynn said the Bush administration is exploiting the famous Old North Church to advance its "faith-based" agenda and assault separation of church and state.
"Old North Church is historic," Lynn said. "But it's a church, not a museum, and it is still used for services every Sunday. Its repair and upkeep ought to be paid for by the people who worship there. Those congregants have no right to pass the collection plate to the taxpayer."
Lynn noted that the Supreme Court in 1973 rejected the concept of government grants for church upkeep. In the PEARL v. Nyquist decision, the court observed, "If the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair."
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 safeguarding religious freedom.