Thursday, March 18, 2004
A request for $10 million in federal money to repair and restore California’s 600-mile string of historic missions built by local Indian labor for Spanish colonizers in the 18th and 19th centuries met two-pronged resistance on Capitol Hill last week, despite unanimous House approval in October.
The bill, which would supply dollar-for-dollar matching grants to the California Missions Foundation, stirred enough friction recently that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) reportedly “gives it a fifty-fifty chance,” after it was criticized during a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks.
The hurdle has been thrown up by a citizens’ group opposed to mixing church and state issues, which is protesting the bill using a First Amendment argument: taxpayer dollars should not go toward institutions that are used for religious services.
Additional opposition came from an official from the National Park Service, P. Daniel Smith, who told lawmakers that there are too many other projects that need the same tax dollars.
“While the goal of this legislation is admirable, the Department [of Interior] opposes [the bill],” Smith said. “We cannot support this new federal funding commitment at a time when we are trying to focus our available resources on taking care of existing National Park Service responsibilities.”
Speaking against the bill on more legal and philosophical grounds was Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
His group, which counts 70,000 members, opposes measures such as Pres. George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiatives” and any display of religious symbolism on public property.
Rev. Lynn contends that since 19 of the 21 missions are still owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church, public money to restore them is not appropriate.
“In short, the California Missions Preservation Act would violate the First Amendment by forcing taxpayers nationwide to pay for church repairs, even repairs and restoration of facilities with active congregations,” Lynn testified. “Instead, it is up to religious organizations and individuals to voluntarily support preservation of the California missions.”
The well-known Carmel Mission, built in 1771, is one of 21 historic missions stretched along the California coast from San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego to the San Francisco Solano Mission in Sonoma.
The bill, co-authored by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) and Rep. David Dreier (R-Glendora), passed the House unanimously in the fall and went before the Senate committee last week. Forty-eight of the 53 members of Congress from California endorsed the bill.
Of the 21 California missions, five are in Farr’s district: the Carmel Mission, Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista, San Antonio de Padua in Jolon and La Soledad.
Farr testified before the committee, telling the senators to pay up.
“Rotting roofs. Cracking tiles. Crumbling adobe. The backlog of needed repairs is long. The price tag is high. And the message is clear. The California missions need our help. Now.”
Independent of the legislative effort, the California Missions Foundation has initiated a $50 million statewide fund drive. According to the foundation, the missions attract 5.3 million visitors a year. The campaign has raised $3 million.
Foundation President Richard Ameil says lobbying efforts will continue. He says that despite the resistance, he expects the bill to pass the Senate.
He refutes the First Amendment argument, noting that although most of the missions are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, they are also used for concerts and town halls. Donations from the foundation are made directly to the repair vendor.
“We’ve never written a check to the Catholic Church or a diocese or anything like that,” Ameil says.
Also, he says, the federal and state governments have provided money to the missions before, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters.
“We’re not promoting religion,” Ameil says. “We’re promoting historic preservation.”