Friday, December 03, 2004

Fix the Missions

This story in today's Washington Post may not catch many peoples attention, but it caught mine though not for the reason many may think. Basically, the article notes that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday objecting to the California Missions Preservation Act, signed by the president, which provides $10 million in taxpayer funds to "restore and repair" 21 of California's missions. For any of you who don't know, there are I believe 33 total "missions" in California built by the Franciscans in the early 1800's. Famous for their scenic locations up and down the coast of California, these missions were located approximately a days ride apart from each other and provided a struggling land with economic, military, and social development. Yes, the missions were built as churches, and many remain active houses of worship today, but they are historical monuments that tell an important story about the development and cultivation of a part of the United States and its people.

Objecting to the funding is not really what bothers me, as I suppose reasonable people can disagree about how taxpayer funds should be spent. The rational, however, for the objection is not based on financial expenditures though, it is based on religion and even more specifically government's involvement in religion. The groups executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn, is quoted in the story as saying " the churches are not museums. Houses of worship must be maintained by their congregations, not the federal government, ... If this type of assistance is upheld, every house of worship in America that is deemed 'historic' could demand upkeep and repair courtesy of the taxpayer." Umm...Sorry Barry, but in this you are factually wrong, the churches and the mission grounds are all museums. Having personally visited, at last recollection, about 10 of the missions I can say with absolute certainty that each is a museum preserved by the State of California and dedicated to the maintenance, upkeep, and historical preservation of the grounds. Many of the them, perhaps most notably San Juan Capistrano, are also tourist destinations making them totally devoid of any religious significance. The fact that many have active Roman Catholic congregations does nothing to weaken their historical significance.

Now, I'm as ardent of a separation of church and state guy as you can get, but even I think this whole thing has gone a bit too far. Groups like these destroy any creditably they have when the take on reasonable, sensible projects like this simply because religion may be a part of the equation. The restoration here is primarily for historical reasons, the buildings are made of adobe, falling apart, and are expensive to repair, the fact that a church congregation may tangentially benefit by not having their roof fall during Sunday Mass is hardly reason to stop preserving pieces of our cultural history. Many events and buildings of great historical value also have great religious value, because like it or not religion is a large part of history, especially ours. There is a time and place for the separation of church and state fight, like with respect prayer in schools, abstinence only programs, and ten commandment monuments in courthouses. Message to Rev. Lynn: fight the good fights and leave history alone.


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