US Judge Rules Public Funds Can be Used for Church Renovations

August 23, 2007

Author: Jane Lampman

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

Should citizens' tax dollars be spent to renovate houses of worship?

The answer to that question used to be a resounding "No, it's unconstitutional." But Aug. 8, a federal judge broke new ground. He ruled that the city of Detroit could partially reimburse three churches for renovations they made to their buildings to make the downtown area more attractive before the 2006 Super Bowl. (The city paid numerous property owners for renovations.)

Public funds can go to churches for improvements that serve a civic purpose, but not to promote religion, ruled Judge Avern Cohn of the US District Court of Eastern Michigan. In practical terms, that meant the churches could be reimbursed for repairs to their buildings and parking lots, which "convey no religious message," he said, but not for new signs or stained-glass windows.

"This is the first time we've gotten a court decision on government bricks-and-mortar spending in a very long time," says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University. And it's likely to capture the attention of states and cities across the United States as they consider similar church-state matters.