Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Open and Shut Case

I learned of this story via the about.com Atheism blog. The story's headline asks, "Can a mission refuse to wed non-Catholics?" Well, of course, the answer to that question is yes. But the real question of the article is, "Is a mission that refuses to wed non-Catholics eligible for Federal funding to restore the building?" In this case, the answer is quite clearly no.

Knox Mellon, executive director of the California Missions Foundation, said,
"...I don't know what the response should be to asking to be married in the
sanctuary of a denomination that may . . . have restrictions on who
can be married..."

There's no question here. Either the missions are solely religious centers, in which case the Catholic Church can allow only Catholic marriages in them but they are then ineligible for Federal funding, or they are historic sites, in which case they are open to all without discrimination on basis of religion and are eligible for Federal funds. Simple as that. If Catholics can exercise their religion in the mission, including controlling who gets married there, but no one else can, then using Federal funds to restore the mission is clearly supporting an establishment of religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment.

In other words, if only Catholics can get married in the mission, then Catholics are responsible for contributing money for the mission's upkeep. If all of us, through our tax dollars, are going to pay for the upkeep of the missions, then all of us must be able to use them equally. End of story.

What is so difficult about that?

A spokesman for California Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat who wrote the
mission-funding bill, said taxpayer money will not support discriminatory
practices because the money will pay for "the preservation of historic landmarks
– not for the church, and not for religious services performed by the church."

A "historic landmark" is something that can be used by the public equally, without discriminating on the basis of religion. If Catholics are allowed to marry at a "historic landmark," then Jews, Protestants, Scientologists, and atheists must be allowed to marry there too. If the use of a site is limited to those of a single religion, it is not a "historic landmark." It is a church. Restoring these missions while their use is limited to Catholics, even if only in marrying, benefits the Catholic Church and Catholics disproportionately to everyone else.

In an e-mail response to questions from Copley New Service, the couple said
after their wedding request for the church was rejected, "We asked if we could
use some part of the mission with our own priest hired for the occasion, and
were again told 'no.' "

I think this is crucial. The couple was not asking that the Catholic Church wed two non-Catholics, nor that a Catholic priest perform the ceremony. They simply wanted to marry on the site of a "historic landmark." And yet were denied on the basis that non-Catholics cannot marry in a Catholic Church. If the mission's function as a Catholic Church overrules its function as a "historic landmark," then it is an establishment of religion, not history, and cannot be maintained with Federal funds, pursuant to the First Amendment.

Why is this so hard? Seems obvious and simple to me.


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