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Senator Helps Church Undercut Vets' Home.

Veterans groups are up in arms over a plan by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to take land now being used by a financially ailing home for retired military personnel.

Provisions for the land grab were buried in a massive Defense Department appropriations bill sent to President Bill Clinton in October and came to light only after a report in The Washington Post.

The newspaper said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had inserted language into the bill requiting the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home to sell a 49-acre parcel of land to the archdiocese or a related entity, such as Catholic University, which abuts the veterans' facility.

Officials at the home are angry over the sweetheart deal, saying they need to develop the land and use the income to remain financially solvent. The facility, which houses more than 1,100 elderly veterans, is struggling financially and will face bankruptcy by 2004 unless steps are taken. The home had been exploring the creation of a public-private partnership with a Pennsylvania-based real estate firm to develop the land, in the hope that the profits would give the facility reliable on-going income.

Santorum's amendment requires the church to pay "fair market value" for the land, but supporters of the home say that isn't enough. "By forcing them to sell off the land, the home will get a lump sum of money, but they won't get the steady stream of income they need," Paul Arcari, co-chairman of the Military Coalition, a consortium of military-related and veterans groups, told The Post.

The Soldiers' and Airmen's Home receives no taxpayer money but sits on government-owned land. The facility is supported by fees assessed from active military personnel and monthly fees paid by residents. Military downsizing had led to a precipitous drop in the facility's budget.

Church officials say they are concerned about how the home plans to use the land. "It seems only prudent for a city campus to be concerned about a tract" on its borders, said the Rev. William E. Lori, auxiliary bishop of Washington. "Our main concern is our growth and providing for that."

The home sits near the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the planned John Paul II Catholic Conference Center.

Faced with criticism from veterans groups, Santorum agreed to slow down the sale and impose a six-month moratorium, but he insisted it will go through. "I'm willing to take a timeout and see if we can address these concerns" said the Pennsylvania senator, who is Catholic. "Everything will be frozen in place until we can work out a more agreeable situation."

Santorum, who said he was asked to intervene in the matter by high church officials, said the veterans' home has no special claim on the property. "It's not their land to develop," he said of the soldiers' home. "They are tenants on that land."

But Kerri Childress, a spokeswoman for the facility, told the paper the home never intended to develop the land without congressional approval. Other officials at the home added that they had met with church leaders in an effort to bring the church into the development plans and had even proposed making them partners in a deal.

On Oct. 9 Americans United weighed in on the controversy, after being contacted by employees at the home. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a letter to Cardinal James Hickey, the archbishop of Washington, urging him to reconsider the church's plans to force the sale of the land.

Lynn noted that the arrangement raises "serious church-state concerns." Wrote the AU director, "It is simply not appropriate for Congress to require the [soldiers' home] to sell its land to any specific religious body. The arrangement smacks of a form of government-sponsored favoritism toward one specific denomination. Such an arrangement would seem to violate First Amendment provisions barring an official establishment of religion."

Church officials seem confident that they will get the land. On Oct. 28, Lori sent a letter to David F. Lacy, chairman of the Armed Forces Retirement Home Board, requesting a meeting to discuss making arrangements for the sale of the land. Lori also enclosed a one-page document that he asked Lacy to sign stating that the Soldiers and Airmen's Home recognizes that the Archdiocese is the only entity qualified to purchase the land.
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:723
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