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Is This a Mission Impossible?

Official seeks a constitutional amendment to use state funds to repair religious landmarks such as Mission San Miguel, now on an endangered structures list.

May 11, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SAN MIGUEL, Calif. — Since the San Simeon earthquake in 2003, the tottering old church at the mission in this tiny Central Coast town has been off-limits to just about everyone, including the congregation that used to worship in it.

A chain-link fence seals off the entrance. Deep cracks scar the facade. Warning signs are everywhere.

Officials fear the 6-foot-thick walls of California's most dilapidated mission could come tumbling down with the next tremor, destroying two centuries of art, artifacts and history.

Work to restore Mission San Miguel Arcangel might already be underway, except that the architectural heirloom is at the epicenter of the long-running conflict over the separation of church and state. Even though voters passed an initiative in 2002 aimed in part at preserving the fragile missions, California officials this year ruled that the state's Constitution bars the use of public funds for places of worship.

On Wednesday, the same day the nation's most prominent preservation group put San Miguel on its list of most endangered historic structures, a frustrated state senator launched a drive here for a constitutional amendment to allow the state to spend money on its crumbling religious landmarks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
California missions: An article in Thursday's California section said three missions -- those in Lompoc, Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista -- were owned by the state and run as historic parks. The mission in Lompoc is state-owned, as is the one in Sonoma, but the missions in Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista are church-owned, with state historic parks nearby.

"Yes, this is a place of worship, but it's also an important piece of our state's history," Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) said in an interview. "Landmark buildings with historical or current religious affiliation should be allowed to apply for state grants just like any other nonprofit."

But some critics say that the government shouldn't funnel money to churches, regardless of their historic value.

"This is a genuinely terrible idea," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The taxpayers of California should not be forced to subsidize active, worshiping congregations by repairing their buildings or other structures used for religious purposes."

Mission San Miguel was named one of America's 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which compiles a new list annually. Among the other designees this year were neighborhoods in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and a battered staircase from the World Trade Center.

"San Miguel is barely holding itself up," said Knox Mellon, director of the California Missions Foundation. "Another little tremor, and it'll go."

Even before a magnitude 6.5 earthquake rocked the area Dec. 22, 2003, the church had fallen into such serious disrepair that building inspectors threatened to close it. Then the quake buckled walls, smashed religious statues and turned wide cracks into chasms, forcing authorities to shutter a building so old its beams had been hauled by mule from forests 40 miles away.

The mission founded in 1797 has seen hard times before. In 1806, most of it burned down. After the Mexican government sold the California missions in the 1840s, San Miguel was at times a saloon, a dance hall and a storehouse. In 1848, bandits killed its 11 residents. It was a virtual ruin before Franciscan friars took it over decades later.

Despite the mission's many incarnations, the years have done almost nothing to alter the interior of its simple church, completed in 1821.

Grease spots mark the walls where cows and pigs rubbed against them. Carved graffiti of sailing ships are visible near the choir loft. Ornate frescoes painted about 200 years ago by Salinan Indians under the direction of a Spanish monk adorn the walls.

"It's almost magical," said Tina Foss, director of the museum at Mission Santa Barbara. "Only San Miguel has the original paint on its walls; there's nowhere else that you can walk in and see original Native American work the way you can see it there."

Only now, nobody can walk in.

Repairs to the church will cost at least $6 million, according to John Fowler, a San Luis Obispo accountant who is directing the restoration effort for a group called Friends of San Miguel. Fixing the other rundown buildings in the rambling mission complex could cost $9 million more.

"Our insurance company thinks it's just a paint-and-plaster job, but we think it's a lot more than that," Fowler said. "The problem is with the structure itself."

In March, Fowler and his group ran into a more surprising problem.

Their application for state funds was turned down by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, an agency that distributes money from Proposition 40, a bond measure aimed in part at restoring historic sites.

While the law setting up the endowment pointed to California's missions as possible funding recipients, the attorney general's office disagreed, citing provisions in the state Constitution against using public funds to advance religion.

The opinion also cited previous court decisions, primarily a 1923 appellate court ruling that barred the use of public money for the restoration of Mission San Diego because it was owned by a Roman Catholic archdiocese.

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