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The Debate to Restore Sacred Sites

Religious institutions have long been barred from receiving federal funding for restorations. But following a recent policy change by the Bush administration, houses of worship that also happen to be historic landmarks—such as Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—may now be renovated with taxpayers' dollars. Boston's Old North Church has already received $317,000 to replace windows and improve accessibility; despite the relatively small sum involved, some are doubting the propriety of using public funds at an ecclesiastical site.

"This is a shocking abuse of taxpayer rights," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Church congregations ought to pay for the maintenance and repair of churches, historic or otherwise."

The vicar of Old North Church, Rev. Stephen T. Ayres, sees the issue as a matter of numbers. While some 150 congregants worship there regularly, about 500,000 people tour the structure every year, stretching its resources and contributing to wear and tear. "Ninety-nine percent of the time," he said, "the church is used as a historic site, not a religious building."

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