Concerned over possible church-state conflicts, legislators have rejected an effort to channel state funds into the restoration of California’s deteriorating missions.
The proposal by state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) would have brought the question of state aid for historic houses of worship before the public as a ballot measure in the Nov. 7 election.
However, it failed Tuesday to wend its way out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The problem essentially was that it would have authorized state taxpayer funds for churches with ongoing services, violating the church-state ethic that has been practiced in the U.S. for centuries,” said Jim Evans, a spokesman for state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), the judiciary committee chairman.
A federal program called Save America’s Treasures has financed repairs at landmark houses of worship, including Boston’s Old North Church, where Paul Revere hung his famous lanterns. But religious observances at those facilities are minimal, Evans said. Old North Church has two Episcopal services every Sunday, while many of California’s 21 missions offer services every day, he said.
Under Maldonado’s proposal, state funds would have been used only for preservation work at the missions and other religious facilities recognized as historic landmarks.
“This is not a church-and-state issue,” he said in a news release. “Our missions signify the early vision, foresight and culture Californians are known for, and we’re letting them crumble.”
Maldonado will reintroduce his proposal in January, hoping that new legislators will be more sympathetic to it, said his spokesman, Chris Mowrer.
If he does, the bill will probably be opposed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whose director, Rev. Barry Lynn, has called the proposal “a genuinely terrible idea.”
“The taxpayers of California should not be forced to subsidize active, worshiping congregations by repairing their buildings or other structures used for religious purposes,” he said in a May interview.
Maldonado’s Central Coast district includes the earthquake-ravaged Mission San Miguel, an adobe complex so fragile that the National Trust for Historic Preservation in May named it one of America’s 11 most endangered historic sites.
Knox Mellon, director of the California Missions Foundation, said passage of Maldonado’s bill would be “an uphill battle, but one worth fighting.”
In the meantime, he waits for Congress to dole out $10 million to the mission restoration effort. A 2004 bill by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) earmarked that sum, but the appropriation was never made.