Newman Center 071009
Contruction activity continued at the new chapel addition for the St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Newman Center at Illinois State University after staff cutbacks at the center were announced. (The Pantagraph, David Proeber) David Proeber

SPRINGFIELD - The long awaited statewide construction plan contains not only money to rebuild roads, bridges and public schools, but it has millions of dollars set aside for religious organizations.

As part of the legislation acted on by Gov. Pat Quinn Monday, scores of Roman Catholic schools throughout the state would get public dollars for various improvements. Jewish groups are in line for millions. Groups affiliated with Lutherans and Methodists also have a financial stake in the program.

The religious-minded projects were inserted into the $31 billion infrastructure improvement plan at the request of state lawmakers as a way to improve facilities within their home districts.

It isn't the first time it's happened. During former Gov. George Ryan's tenure, churches and religious groups also received taxpayer funds for various projects through the Illinois First program.

But not everyone is happy about the arrangement.

In Normal, the St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Newman Center on the campus of Illinois State University is in line for $200,000 in state funds. The under-construction facility, which will serve Catholic university students, is being built for $3.2 million with most of its financing coming from the Catholic diocese in Peoria.

Normal resident Carol Straka is among those who opposes using state money on the project and others like it.

"Illinois should not be raising taxes or sending tax dollars to support individual churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues to build worship centers and offices," Straka noted Monday. "Separation of church and state is a dearly held founding principle of our nation."

State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said the state money is aimed at the student services portion of the Newman Center project.

"I was looking for a way to help ISU and its students," said Brady, a candidate for governor and a Catholic.

Leonard Lieberman, governmental affairs director of the Jewish United Fund, said his group lobbies for construction dollars to fix up facilities that are used by the public.

For example, the construction plan contains a $35,000 earmark for a Jewish student center at the University of Chicago.

"It's not for anything that has do with actual religious proceedings," Lieberman said. "It is for all students on the campus. It's a gathering place."

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