Friday, August 31, 2007

Constitutional First? Court Approves Funding for Reconstruction of Church Buildings

American Atheists v. City of Detroit, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2007 WL 2300693, Civ. No. 2:06-cv-11696 (E.Dist. Mich.) has spawned a hue and cry among strict separationists, who claim that it represents the first time in modern history that a court has approved the public funding of improvements to houses of worship.

American Atheists brought a federal Establishment Clause challenge to grants made by the City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority to three local churches for improvements to exterior facades, parking areas and landscaping as part of the city’s efforts to improve the downtown area in advance of the All-Star Game in 2005 and the Super Bowl in 2006. The stated purpose of the grants, which reimbursed qualifying landowners and long-term lessees for 50% of approved improvements, was to retain and attract downtown business and related civic purposes, and plaintiffs in fact did not deny that the "secular purpose" prong of Lemon was met. Neutral criteria for projects included structural and architectural qualifications, and a private project management company administered the grants. The court issued a decision in favor of the city and the churches on August 8th, upholding the constitutionality of the grants in substantial part except for improvements to the churches’ monolithic signage and stained glass iconography. As to these, the court concluded that the expression of religious messages on such structures would constitute a “diversion” of funding to religious speech – i.e., sectarian purposes. Improvements to church exterior facades, parking lots and landscaping were approved. The court held that Mitchell v. Helms was a “jurisprudential shift” that had modified the stricter requirements of the Tilton trilogy limiting capital funding for sectarian institutions. Mitchell dictates that as long as the criteria for eligibility are neutral, the “pervasively sectarian” nature of the institutional recipient is notwithstanding. Divertibility is not an issue, the court noted, where the improvements are capital in nature and do not directly serve religious services or messages.

Presuming an appeal is filed (final judgment was entered August 24th), this is certainly one to watch. Although Marty Lederman claims that the case “would likely be the vehicle for a wholesale 5-4 overturning of almost 40 years of Establishment Clause doctrine” if it reached the Supreme Court, I think he’s being a bit hyperbolic. There is no reason the Supreme Court, or the Sixth Circuit for that matter, could not issue a decision that simply notes that the Supreme Court has never ruled that the Establishment Clause prohibits churches from receiving public funds that are available to all similarly situated beneficiaries on the basis of criteria that are neutral to religion, even if the funds are for the renovation of a historic church structure, provided the funds further an important governmental purpose such as historical preservation or civic improvement, and where the funds are not used to indoctrinate such as by funding religious art or iconography. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel recently offered the opinion that "[t]he Establishment Clause does not bar the award of historic preservation grants to the Old North Church or to other active houses of worship that qualify for such assistance, and the section of the National Historic Preservation Act authorizing the provision of historic preservation assistance to religious properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places is constitutional." Provided a legitimate public purpose unrelated to furthering religious speech and activity is served and no denominational preference is exhibited, government does not tear down the Wall of Separation of Church and State by shoring up the walls of historic churches.