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Basilica finds itself at center of a constitutional quandary

A fund-raising drive to renovate Baltimore's basilica, the nation's first Roman Catholic cathedral and a symbol of religious freedom, defies another cherished notion in American life, according to critics: the division between church and state.

The basilica's historic trust is applying for up to $4 million in state and federal money to help refurbish the church for its bicentennial in 2006.

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Some critics, though, say preservation funding for religious sites - which the Bush administration made available recently - flouts the U.S. Constitution and is part of a broader strategy to support faith-based organizations.

"The big problem with the White House is they seem to have lost all memory of church-state separation," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based organization.

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"If you have an active church, then I think you have to do your active fund raising through voluntary efforts, not through the compulsion of the tax collector."

Supporters of public funding for religious sites say that refusing them money is discriminatory and ignores their role in American history.

"President Bush believes America has many treasures, some of which are in sacred places, and he wanted to end discrimination against those," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"It's very hard to tell the story of 18th- and 19th-century America without including places like the Old North Church [in Boston] and the basilica."

The basilica's historic trust, a nonprofit organization, is trying to raise $25 million to return the national landmark to the original concept of its architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, also a designer of the U.S. Capitol.

Through the renovation, the trust also hopes to publicize the story behind the basilica, which was built in the early 1800s as the nation's first Catholic cathedral under John Carroll, the country's first bishop.

Religious freedom

Maryland played an integral role in the development of religious freedom, beginning with its founding by persecuted English Catholics in the 1630s. Under the Church of England, Maryland Catholics later suffered for decades until the American Revolution.

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Carroll envisioned the cathedral, officially known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a symbol of the country's newfound religious freedom.

So far, fund-raisers have relied on private donations, according to the trust's executive vice president, Robert J. Lancelotta Jr. The trust has raised about $21 million in checks and pledges, with some contributions in the six- and seven-figure range, he said.

The opportunity for federal funds emerged a few months ago when the Bush administration changed policy, permitting religious sites to receive money from Save America's Treasures, a program under the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service.

Money for exterior

The program requires that money go to the exterior of a religious structure - so that it benefits the wider community - not the interior, where it could be seen as assisting worship.

The first religious site to win funding was Boston's Old North Church, which received $317,000 this spring to replace deteriorating windows. The church, which draws a half-million visitors a year, is famous as the spot where a patriot hung two lanterns in the steeple to signal the British advance to Paul Revere.

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The basilica is not nearly as well-known as the Old North Church or the nation's other prominent Catholic cathedrals, such as St. Patrick's in New York; the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; and the $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

Lancelotta hopes that the renovation will help the Baltimore church regain some of the recognition it once had as the home of the first Roman Catholic diocese in America.

Early next year, the basilica's trust plans to apply for up to $1 million in Save America's Treasures money.

Any government funds, Lancelotta says, will go to the outside of the cathedral, a neoclassical building that combines Byzantine towers, Greek columns and a dome resembling the Pantheon in Rome.

Lancelotta says the funds could be used to replace the roof with cedar shingle, place new copper sheeting around the dome - which has turned green through oxidation - and repair the chipped sandstone columns that overlook Cathedral Street.

"We don't want to cause any controversy," said Lancelotta. "We don't want to go in and say we are replacing the pews or redoing the sanctuary."

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Not everyone sees the distinction.

"This notion that you should fund the exterior and not the interior is theologically and practically ridiculous," said Lynn. "The outside of a church ... is meant to attract people inside. The steeples point heavenwards for a purpose."

Others say the Bush administration is breaching the barrier between church and state in a way that could affect the independence of religious institutions.

'Voice of conscience'

Giving money for renovation "is a way of extending the reach of the federal government into the sanctity of the house of worship," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a clergy-led grass-roots organization.

"Religion has been best for this nation when religious institutions have ... spoken to the nation as a voice of conscience. If you lose that independence, you begin to compromise your integrity."

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The concept of church-state division lies in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In practice, though, the United States has a mixed record in keeping faith and government separate.

"In God We Trust" reads the back of the $1 bill. On Thursday, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered the removal of a granite monument to the Ten Commandments from the state's judicial building. The monument had been installed by Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore.

In addition to federal funds, the basilica's trust has already applied for up to $3 million from a state tax credit program for historic preservation. The credits are "refundable," meaning that eligible organizations can receive direct payment from the state.

In 2002, members of the state Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee raised questions about whether religious sites should benefit from the program. Citing the basilica's plans, a state attorney general's opinion concluded that they should qualify because the tax credit is available to other nonprofits.

"Where aid is distributed on the basis of 'neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion' ... it is likely to be upheld," wrote Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe.

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Last year, the state approved almost $30 million worth of historic preservation tax credits, which have helped fund such projects as the American Can Co. complex in Canton and the revival of the Hippodrome Theater on downtown's west side.

The basilica isn't the only church to apply.

St. Vincent de Paul

The Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, which sits across Fayette Street from the Shot Tower, says he has also put in for a state tax credit.

His church plans to renovate the rectory, which dates to the early 1800s. After the work is complete, the church hopes to recoup $200,000 to $250,000 from the state.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has a particular interest in constitutional matters related to religion, said it would be unfair to exclude faith-based organizations.

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"I just knew from my involvement in the issue," said Rosenberg, "that you couldn't so blatantly discriminate against religious institutions."


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