Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued an open letter to the mayors of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC, among other government leaders on August 31, 2015 calling for them to maintain separation of church and state during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. in September.
Citing the Establishment Clause and pertinent case law, the letter states that “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.”
In particular AU is concerned about Philadelphia’s intended travel and access restrictions that are “not comparable to anything the City has done before” including closing some bridges and certain streets. Apparently the city will also be closing city offices, suspending trash service, and closing public schools in honor of the World Meeting of Families.
Doing so could violate the separation of church and state and communicate a message of endorsement of religion.
According the letter, in a 1980 decision, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Philadelphia had violated the Establishment Clause when it spent taxpayer funds to build a platform for a papal mass, rent chairs, rent a sound system, and pay for other decorations and structures. (Gilfillan v. City of Philadelphia, 637 F.2d 924 (3rd Cir. 1980)). However, the D.C. Circuit in 1979 upheld provision of police protection, crowd and traffic control, utilities, and trash services for a papal mass held on the National Mall because these services were “no different from those regularly incurred with any large public gathering”. (O’Hair v. Andrus, 613 F.2d 931).
The complete Americans United letter is available here: https://au.org/files/pdf_documents/2015-08-31_PopeVisitLetter.pdf