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Congress OKs funds for missions repairs despite concerns

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress has passed legislation funding renovations on historic California missions despite complaints it violates the separation of church and state.

The House of Representatives approved the California Missions Preservation Act, H.R. 1446, by voice vote Nov. 17, paving the way for President Bush to sign the measure into law. The Senate passed the same bill Oct. 10.

The legislation authorizes $10 million in federal funds over five years for the California Missions Foundation, a secular, nonprofit group founded in 1998 to restore the historic buildings. The 21 missions are the state’s most visited historic attraction, according to the office of Rep. Sam Farr, D.-Calif., House sponsor of the bill.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says the bill violates the First Amendment, however, especially since 19 of the missions are owned by the Roman Catholic Church and are active congregations.

“Taxpayers should never be forced to maintain houses of worship,” Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn said, promising a lawsuit if the bill becomes law. “We appreciate the important role that these missions play in California’s history. But they are not museums; they are houses of worship.”

Amendments were made to the legislation that address those concerns, a spokeswoman for Farr said. It contains a requirement the secretary of the Department of Interior must ensure that the purpose of any grant is secular, does not advance religion and attempts to protect qualities that are historically important. The bill also requires the Interior secretary to withhold funds until the U.S. attorney general reviews a proposed grant and rules that it does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The attorney general’s review “is there to make sure that what we’re doing here is historic preservation,” Farr’s press secretary, Jessica Schafer, told Baptist Press.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif., the Senate sponsor, said in a written statement, “Once on the verge of being lost, California’s missions now have a chance for restoration and revitalization. Congress’ commitment to restoring these historical treasures will help preserve them for future generations to enjoy.”

The missions were built between 1769 and 1798, according to the legislation.

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