When I was a kid, our church decided it would be nice to have a social hall.
It was a pretty ambitious goal. We were a medium-sized congregation serving mostly blue-collar families in an economically depressed area. But the people sitting in the pews believed in the project and gave extra to support it. Kids like me even chipped in nickels and dimes.
I still remember the day the building was dedicated. We had seen blueprints and artist renderings – and now the actual structure was before us! You could feel the pride rippling through the crowd. Soon we were using the building for congregational meetings, weekly bingo, plays and other events connected with the adjacent parochial school, etc.
We considered this building a church hall. It would never have occurred to us to call it a "community center" and get tax funding for it. Although people outside of our church were welcome to attend many of the events there, the sense was that we had built something to enhance our life as a congregation. We would not have expected taxpayers to support that.
How times have changed. These days, many religious leaders are apparently looking to the public purse to fund their projects.
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn recently wrote about a number of religious earmarks that were slipped into a $31 billion appropriations bill passed by Illinois lawmakers. Among the projects funded:
* $150,000 for construction of cabins at a summer camp in Wisconsin run by the Jewish Community Center of Chicago.
* $250,000 for renovations to the Friendship House of Christian Service in Peoria, a group that calls itself a ministry on its Web site and says, "Our mission is to do the work of Jesus Christ, providing relief, respect, and renewal to Peoria's most vulnerable individuals and families."
* $150,000 for renovations at the Salaam Conference Center of Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam in Chicago.
* $700,000 for capital improvements to St. Malachy School, a Roman Catholic institution.
Rob Sherman, a Chicago-area church-state separation activist, uncovered the grants by searching through the 996-page bill. Sherman says a total of $11 million is being spent on religious organizations in Illinois.
As Zorn points out, this is of dubious legality. The Illinois Constitution is clear on the matter: "Neither the General Assembly nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever...."
Observes Zorn, "While it's true that religious organizations can and do get public money to sponsor non-sectarian social-service programs that serve the general public, building construction and repair risks comingling of funds."
Indeed it does. The need to maintain the separation of church and state is reason enough to strike down these grants.
But there's another reason as well: Government support for sectarian enterprises slowly saps religion's strength and vitality. Would the parishioners at my old church have given until it hurt if there was a government grant in the pipeline?
Where's pride of accomplishment if all your house of worship does is fill out an application from the government or hector a legislator to give you a pork-barrel grant?
Building projects and special programs are a way to draw people into the life of the congregation. When people dig deep to support a building fund, a soup kitchen or a church school, they feel like they own a piece of it. They're vested in the life and work of the church.
I don't think you can get that spirit of accomplishment and pride through any other means. It's a shame some religious leaders are willing to blithely toss it aside for a few of Caesar's coins.