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Issue Date:  February 25, 2005

The mission against California's missions


A road along the California coastline that stretches all the way from San Diego to Sonoma is lauded for being one of the most scenic drives in North America. But long before the Pacific Coast Highway became a thoroughfare bearing scores of cars every day, it was a trail beaten into a path by the bare feet of Native Americans and the horses and carts of Franciscan friars from Spain.

They walked, rode and drove all that distance between 1769 and 1823 for just one purpose -- to advance the Kingdom of God by spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the Native Americans. The trail known as El Camino Real -- the King’s Highway -- eventually was dotted with 21 Spanish missions that provided food, shelter and education for the Native Americans who became Christians. And in that process, the Spanish gave us more than just the basis for a great highway; they gave us the basis of a culture that’s as fundamental to American life as what the Pilgrims did on the East Coast more than a century earlier.

But today those foundations are under attack by a handful of organizations led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State that apparently have no sense of our nation’s history or its purpose. The organization is challenging a bill passed by Congress Nov. 17 that allocates a matching gift of up to $10 million to the California Missions Foundation to refurbish the missions, which are crumbling with age and cracked by earthquakes.

The reason for this, according to the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is that “the First Amendment protects taxpayers from having to support religion, and the California missions bill blatantly violates that principle.” Of course, the organization makes no similar objections to public funding being used to acquire or renovate secular historical property or to government officials who pay lawyers to deny people of faith equal access to public property.

What Americans United for Separation of Church and State and their cohorts at People For the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union have lost sight of is the fact that the “separation of church and state” was given to us by the separatists who landed at Plymouth Rock in November 1620 -- the people who came here first and foremost “to bring glory to God,” as the Mayflower Compact says. It means that unlike the situation from which they escaped -- in which the Church of England was intertwined with the government -- the state would not interfere with religious liberty in the New World.

The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution says that the federal government “shall not establish” a particular state religion”; it does not say that the government can’t recognize religion or the important role it plays in our history and culture, nor was it meant to trump the Free Exercise Clause. And it certainly was never meant to be twisted into the club the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way and ACLU now wield in their efforts to stamp out all public memory and acknowledgements of Christianity’s historical significance from the public square.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State carps about the fact that an order of the Roman Catholic church still owns 19 of the missions, and several missions still allow active congregations to worship there. But are the officials of Americans United for Separation of Church and State aware that the missions still house priceless artifacts dating from the 16th century? Do they know that more than 5.3 million people from across the world visited the missions last year? Do they have a clue that the state sends more than 700,000 fourth-graders to the missions annually to research mandatory reports on California history? The missions serve even what Americans United for Separation of Church and State would call a clearly secular historical purpose.

What these constant meddlers would do well to remember is that the United States was settled on both coasts by Europeans who claimed forms of Christianity as their greatest purpose in life. And the purpose of their settlement was to establish a “city on a hill” and a “new Jerusalem” -- a place of freedom that, though imperfect, would serve as a model for and a blessing to all the other nations on earth.

And because of the enduring principles of Christianity held by our founders, for more than 200 years, we’ve been just that.

Alan Sears is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund, America’s largest legal alliance defending religious liberty through strategy, training, funding and litigation.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005

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