Piety Hill Musings

The ramblings of the 51 year old Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church of Detroit. Piety Hill refers to the old name for our neighborhood. The neighborhood has changed a great deal in the over 150 years we have been on this corner (but not our traditional biblical theology) and it is now known for the neighboring theatres, the professional baseball and football stadiums and new hockey/basketball arena.

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Location: Detroit, Michigan, United States

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Checking in while at St. Michael's Conference, and more St. John's in the News


I wanted to check in quickly to say that the St. Michael's Conference for Youth is going well (DEO GRATIAS). Please continue to keep us in your prayers. My internet access is limited until Saturday afternoon, so please don't assume my silence is some sort of disregard!


But while away, once again St. John's is in the news! The article includes this snappy picture of yours truly! The article can be found at http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007707190348
The article helps to give some background info on the lawsuit we are involved in, in which the American Atheists Inc. are preventing 3 churches from receiving matching grant for facade improvements that were promised to us before we did the work last year, and are now sitting on $93,000 in loans and paying interest!
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BY DAVID ASHENFELTER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
The U.S. Department of Justice has waded into a legal brawl between a national atheist group and the Detroit Downtown Development Authority, which pledged $734,570 in grants to three historic churches in a major downtown face-lift in time for the 2006 Super Bowl.
A federal judge in Detroit is expected to rule soon in the case, which could have national implications as to what role the government has in helping to preserve historic churches.

American Atheists Inc. sued Detroit's DDA in U.S. District Court last year, saying the grants violated the constitutional separation between church and state. The DDA pledged the money to the churches as partial reimbursement for improvements the churches made to their properties.
"The churches should be paying for those projects, not taxpayers," American Atheists President Ellen Johnson told the Free Press last week. She said the projects amount to public support of religion.
But the development authority, the churches and their recent ally, the Justice Department's Civil Division, say the funds, which the churches haven't received, don't involve Bibles, prayer books or religious indoctrination -- only grants that enabled the churches to participate in a program that helped downtown property owners spruce up their property. They compared the grants to communities providing police and fire protection for churches.
"It's been nightmarish," said the Rev. Kevin Turman, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Greektown. He and other pastors said that without the grants, which were due more than a year ago, the churches have been forced to renegotiate loans, pay more interest and divert funds from church projects.
The decision is expected to come soon from U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn. The Justice Department said an adverse ruling could jeopardize future national preservation grants to historic churches.
Justice Department lawyer Kathryn Wyer told Cohn that the federal government has long recognized the importance of preserving national historic church sites. In 2003, she said, the National Parks Service awarded the Old North Church in Boston a $317,000 grant to restore its windows.
The church, occupied by an Episcopal congregation, was made famous in April 1775 when its sexton displayed two lanterns from the steeple to warn American Revolutionary War patriot Paul Revere that the British were advancing on Lexington, Mass.
"Federal bricks-and-mortar programs serve important secular interests in preserving our national heritage and in providing tangible assistance after major catastrophes," Wyer told Cohn in court papers in April. She declined to be interviewed.
"Detroit's program, while on a smaller scale than these federal programs, similarly serves the important purpose of bringing a downtown area back to life," Wyer added.
American Atheists Inc., a New Jersey nonprofit founded in the 1960s by the legendary late atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, sued the authority in April 2006, after learning of the grants to Central United Methodist Church and St. John's Episcopal Church on Woodward near the Fox Theatre, and Second Baptist Church on Monroe.
The churches used the grant pledges to obtain $1.7 million in loans to repair their building facades and parking lots and make other improvements. Property owners were offered 50% reimbursement -- up to $150,000 for building facades and $30,000 for parking lots -- to improve their property. The grants, totaling $11.5 million, were designed to generate $23 million in improvements.
"We agreed to provide assistance to the churches, not as churches but as property owners," said Art Papapanos, vice president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., which is affiliated with the DDA. "We didn't differentiate between whether it was religious, political, private or government entity."
Authority lawyers argued that the church projects complied with U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing governments to award grants to religious organizations if the grants don't advance or inhibit religion or result in religious indoctrination.
The atheist group was joined in its suit by Steve Walker, a political science professor at Wayne County Community College, and Dennis Vatsis, a Detroit lawyer who lives in West Bloomfield.
"I have nothing against these churches, but why would I want to subsidize them with my tax money?" asked Walker.
Added Vatsis: "I'm just tired of working 60 hours a week to fund these government schemes to dole out my tax money, particularly when we have a constitutional prohibition against it."
Contact DAVID ASHENFELTER at 313-223-4490 or dashenfelter@freepress.com.