Public dollars, private gains

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

(Third in a series looking at the pork-barrel extras included in the state gas tax hike of 19 cents per gallon.)

Are Illinois lawmakers thumbing their nose at the state Constitution?

Among the nonprofit organizations getting funds as part of the state’s capital bill are religious schools, religious organizations and churches, which would seem to run contrary to wording in the state Constitution.

The capital bill, pitched as a way to fix Illinois’ crumbling roads, bridges and public buildings, is funded through a doubling of the state’s gasoline tax and increases in license-plate fees. On the way to passage of the increases and the infrastructure bill, however, extras for nonprofits throughout the state found their way into the legislation.

So while motorists are paying more at the pump, some of that extra money is going to organizations that may have religious beliefs contrary to one’s own.

While doling out funds for capital improvements at private addiction recovery centers, health facilities and support agencies for families and youth did lawmakers go too far in including a number of religious organizations in the payouts?

The allocations to religious organizations would appear to run afoul of the “no-aid” provision in the Illinois Constitution.

Article X, Section 3 of the state Constitution starts with the headline in all capital letters “PUBLIC FUNDS FOR SECTARIAN PURPOSES FORBIDDEN.”

The section goes on to say, “Neither the General Assembly nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money, or other personal property every be made by the State, or any such public corporation, to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.”

A Chronicle Media examination of the state House bill funding the infrastructure improvements found that while motorists are paying for safer streets, they are also paying $50,000 for a sound system for the community room at Church of the Spirit in Chicago.

Money to make public buildings whole again will also share $100,000 with Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Glenview for its building renovations, research showed.

Maggie Garrett, vice president of public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the allocations to religious organizations raise red flags.

“Public funds should be used to support public infrastructure, public schools and charitable organizations that benefit all Illinois residents — not building houses of worship and funding private religious schools that are used primarily by members of a particular faith,” Garrett said in a statement to Chronicle Media. “It is a fundamental violation of taxpayers’ religious freedom — not to mention the Illinois Constitution — to force residents to fund religious education and religious practices with which they may not agree.”

Organizations with religious affiliations receiving funding in the capital bill include:

  • Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago — $20 million for affordable family housing and a veterans housing campus
  • Amita Health Saints Mary’s and Elizabeth Medical Center — $250,000 for renovations to its Crisis Stabilization Unit
  • The ARK of St. Sabina — $500,000 for lighting, and the purchase and installation of a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system
  • Inner-City Muslim Action Network — $370,000 for renovations at a building at 63rd Street and Racine Avenue in Chicago
  • Bishop Shepherd Little Memorial Center — $250,000 for capital improvements
  • Gifts from God Ministry — $100,000 for capital improvement
  • Chicago Chesed Fund — $115,000 for infrastructure improvements to a warehouse and $300,000 for capital improvements
  • Chicago Center for Torah & Chesed — $125,000 for construction of a new building and $250,000 for building renovations
  • Hatzalah Chicago — $15,000 for driveway improvements
  • The Ark of Chicago — $100,000 for building renovations and expansions
  • Keshet — $50,000 for capital improvements
  • Jewish United Fund of Chicago — $200,000 for renovations to The Ark.
  • Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago — $50,000 for capital improvements for the federation’s Human Service Campus
  • Lewis University — $6 million for erecting an air traffic control tower
  • Ann Catholic School — $100,000 for renovations and repairs
  • Little Company of Mary Hospital — $500,000 for capital improvements to its Electrophysiology Laboratory
  • Mount Sinai Hospital — $1 million for infrastructure improvements for Ogden Commons