A Very Bad Idea in Illinois

John ArmstrongSeparation of Church & State

A few days ago a devastating fire destoyed a historic Chicago landmark, the southside meeting place of the Pilgrim Baptist Church. It is still being determined if the walls of the old church are structurally sound enough to allow them to remain when the church is rebuilt. This historic church has been the religious home of a number of famous people. Before the building became a church, about seventy-five years ago, it was a historic Chicago synagogue.  This particular tragedy has struck many Chicagoans deeply and the outpouring of public response has been nothing short of amazing as financiers and friends have pledged large sums of money toward the rebuilding project. 

Following the devastating fire Governor Rod Blagojevich promised one million dollars of state funds to the rebuilding of the church. (He also promised a personal gift of $1,000.) Not only is the governor’s pledge of Illinois funds surprising, since he is a Democrat, but it appears to me to plainly be unconstitutional. The Illinois Constitution (Article 10, Section 3) states: "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."

Eric Zorn, in the Chicago Tribune (January 12, 2005), appropriately asked: "Where’s the wiggle room into which to slip a million-dollar check?"

The governor’s spokeswoman, in defending state support for Pilgrim Baptist, said the gift was actually meant to rebuild the school which is housed on the church site. She noted that any benefit this gift would have for the church is "incidental." Really?

The governor’s legal counsel has further noted that previous state court rulings have made the Illinois Constitution’s legal statements against such gifts meaningless prohibitions. Sadly, the political element in all of this is all too obvious. Blagojevich is running for re-election this year and few doubt that his desire for black votes in the city is somehow connected to his promise of state charity.

The governor’s adminstration defended his action by citing numerous gifts from the state to assorted church projects in the past. This defense seems pretty hollow since these projects have included programs like soup-kitchens, job-placement services and drug counseling.

Here is the interesting and disturbing part of the story, at least to me. Neither Republicans nor Democrats, Christians or Jews, first raised the spectre of what was wrong with this improper mingling of church and state. The initial opposition to Blagojevich’s promise came from militant atheist Rod Sherman, who routinely questions such things in Illinois.

Blagojevich’s promise of funds to Pilgrim Baptist Church last week will almost certainly face a court challenge, which will of course be funded by the taxpayer’s money. It is ironic to me that both liberals and conservatives often miss the proper legal separation of church and state when the situation suits them politically. This issue is very important. It seems more than odd to be on the side of the atheist Rod Sherman in this particular issue. Remember, if your church takes government money you will give up a vital and hard won liberty at a great price that may eventually be larger than what you bargained for when you took the political cash.