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A Historic Church, and Debate Just as Old

U.S. policy is reversed with a decision to use public funds to repair a Boston landmark.

May 29, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The windows at Old North Church are cracked and the paint is peeling. Visitors to the red brick building where Paul Revere got the signal in 1775 that the British were advancing cannot help but notice that the place could use some sprucing up.

The Bush administration said this week it plans to give $317,000 in federal aid for repairs -- a decision praised Wednesday as a means of preserving a national treasure but also criticized as unacceptably bridging the separation of church and state.

"It seems to me we're crossing that line between church and state more and more," said Nancy Holm, a restaurateur from Carmel, Calif., who visited the site Wednesday. "Yes, this is a building of great historical significance. But my thought, frankly, is that there are other places where federal dollars should go at this time."

The grant awarded Tuesday to the 280-year-old structure -- Boston's oldest church building -- marked the reversal of a federal policy precluding religious institutions from receiving preservation funds. Since at least the 1970s, religious structures have had to rely on private sources -- a policy formalized by the Clinton administration in 1995. But under a new program called Save America's Treasures, houses of worship that meet historic and architectural standards are eligible for federal funds. "There are very vigorous requirements," said the Rev. Stephen T. Ayres, vicar at Old North Church. "To become an historic landmark, you can't just be Joe Church or Joe Synagogue."

But the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who is executive director of Americans for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, said Wednesday that the shift in policy "reeks of a stunt on the part of the administration to push the envelope of funding religious buildings, just like they are trying to fund religious programs to communities."

With its congregation of 150 -- many from the quaint North End district that surrounds the white-steepled church -- Old North "is an active church," Lynn said. "Once you breach the principle that separates church and state, all of a sudden the floodgates open."

Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, said Save America's Treasures will distribute up to $30 million annually. Funds have gone to a Revolutionary War barracks in Pennsylvania, a courthouse in North Carolina, a theater in Massachusetts, slave quarters in Maryland and a Shaker village in New Hampshire that no longer functioned as a religious community, Towey said.

In a telephone interview Wednesday from his office in Washington, Towey emphasized: "The president's point here is, this isn't about funding churches. This is about saving a national treasure."

On a visit to Old North earlier in the week, Towey said he observed visitors "who did not come inside to pray, they came inside to listen to stories about how Paul Revere when he was a youth used to climb up and ring that bell in the steeple."

"They came to hear the story of the church clock, the oldest still extant in any public building in America," he added.

"Yeah, maybe somebody came in to pray too. The point is, why should these buildings be excluded from being eligible from public funding?"

Paul W. Edmondson, vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, said Wednesday that "hundreds if not thousands" of religious properties in the United States may qualify as historically significant, but that they would have to undergo a demanding application process. He cited the California missions as "tremendous examples" of important architectural and historic buildings constructed for religious purposes.

Among other religious properties, Emondson also mentioned the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, the country's oldest synagogue, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls were killed in a racially motivated 1963 bombing.

"These are all important from a secular and cultural standpoint," said Edmondson, whose organization jointly administers the Save America's Treasures program with the National Park Service.

Still, Lynn said he was skeptical that the new federal funds would be limited to architectural preservation. Lynn called the selection of Old North a safe bridge to increased ties between the government and religious institutions.

"The administration decided as part and parcel of its 'being friendly to religion' approach that it would take this historic site and use it to justify paying for the repair of churches," Lynn said. "Their longtime interest is to allow a vast amount of federal funding to go to the reconstruction and renovation of faith-based facilities."

Lynn, who said his advocacy organization might sue to block the grant to Old North, added: "They want to find the place where people will overlook their reservations about paying for churches. After all, they will say, this is about Paul Revere."

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