Church-state watchdog issues 'guidance' in advance of papal visit to U.S. cities

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square to lead mass Aug. 26, 2015. The pope is scheduled to visit three cities in the United States in September, including New York, Washington and Philadelphia. Critics in Philadelphia say the city is woefully under-prepared, even as Americans United for Separation of Church and States warns the city about its spending on the visit. | REUTERS/Max Rossi

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – Americans United for Separation of Church and State has sent a tersely-worded letter to public to officials in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., warning them that "elaborate preparations" for Pope Francis's visit to the United States in September may run afoul of the First Amendment.

According to the group, the cities shouldn't be spending any money on activities that could be perceived as a city government promoting religion. In particular, the letter targets Philadelphia officials who are planning to host the World Meeting of Families, "a self-described 'international event of prayer, catechesis, and celebration.'"

In doing so, the city "intends to impose travel and access restrictions during the Pope's visit and the World Meeting of Families that are not comparable to anything the City has done before."

Although the pope is considered a head of state, he is in a unique position because he also leads a major religious group. As a result, government officials must be very careful not to spend taxpayer dollars for any of the pope's religious activities while he is in the United States.

The Aug. 31 letter claims a "significant portion" of Philadelphia will have traffic rerouted, and once vehicles leave that area they will not be allowed to return until the meeting is over.

Subway services will be limited, city offices will also be closed, as will public schools, and trash collection will be suspended. The rigmarole associated with the papal visit is too much for the church-state watchdog.

"We write to provide guidance on the constitutional limitations on governmental support of and involvement with the papal visit. Specifically, government bodies must not provide any aid to a Pope's religious activities that goes beyond the provision of services — such as police, safety, and security — that are regularly given for comparable public events of a similar size. That is because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government bodies from taking any action that communicates a message of endorsement of religion," the letter said.

The letter, as is common practice with Americans United, is filled with references to legal precedence and instructions, such as, "The Establishment Clause thus prohibits the provision of public aid for religious activity, such as worship or religious instruction." The letter also says government funds cannot be used to pay for items that would normally have a secular use, but in rare instances are used to support "religious programming."

According to Americans United, the city of Philadelphia should already be aware of this. In 1980, during the visit of Pope John Paul II, the city was called on the carpet for spending taxpayer money on a stage, chairs, and landscaping for the event. Then, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled the expenditures were an endorsement of a particular religion – Catholicism.

It ruled in a separate case, however, that expenditures on police and security were allowed because the expenses were "no different from those regularly incurred with any large public gathering, and a comparable level of services and facilities would be extended by the [government] to any group of similar size which possesses a permit to use [the] land."

The Pope is regarded as a "head of state" in U.S. diplomatic circles and is recognized by the United Nations as such. The United States also supplies an Ambassador to the Vatican. Even though that is so, Americans United says the government cannot foot the bill for religious activities such as a large mass or family conference during a papal visit.

"Although the pope is considered a head of state, he is in a unique position because he also leads a major religious group," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement accompanying the letter. "As a result, government officials must be very careful not to spend taxpayer dollars for any of the pope's religious activities while he is in the United States."

In the conclusion of the letter, a "request" for the cities to comply with the instructions offered by Americans United was also accompanied by a notification that the liberal group had already filed requests for public records and would "monitor" city records to uncover potential violations of the First Amendment. 

During the papal visit, Francis will visit Independence Hall, celebrate a Latin Mass at the cathedral basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, visit the Curran-Fromhold Corrections Facility, and visit with Catholic bishops and seminarians at St. Martin's Chapel and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed the city wasn't ready for the visit, because unlike New York and Washington, D.C., where papal events are ticketed or closed door events, many of those in the city of brotherly love are not.

"Only in Philadelphia will giant crowds take over streets in the heart of the city for papal activities, prompting security and logistics measures far beyond those needed in New York or Washington," the editorial said. The paper estimates as many as 1.5 million visitors could flood the city and overwhelm its infrastructure.