It's petition and prayer at Lemko House Local lawmakers attend Mass, tend to constituency

August 15, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

The church-state battle over the chapel in East Baltimore's Lemko House heated up politically and spiritually yesterday as American Joe Miedusiewski, who represents its elderly tenants in the state Senate, and the 1st District's three City Councilmen went there to pray.

Most of the residents of the 110-unit, federally financed apartment building on South Ann Street in Fells Point have signed a petition to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, asking that HUD's order to dismantle the chapel be rescinded.

HUD's Baltimore office has decreed that the small, popular chapel on the first floor of the 9-year-old building violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Senator Miedusiewski and the other members of the political delegation attending yesterday's 8:30 a.m. Mass in the chapel echoed a statement by Councilman John L. Cain.

"I do believe in the separation of church and state," Mr. Cain said, "but there seems to be an inconsistent federal policy here.

"Why should it apply to these elderly folks and not to the young people at the Naval Academy, for example?"

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. added that the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point "all have massive chapels."

And political support for Lemko's chapel now crosses party lines.

Democrats who have announced that they back the tenants, in addition to Mr. Miedusiewski, Mr. Cain, Mr. D'Adamo and Councilman Perry Sfikas, include Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who lives directly across the street from Lemko House.

Ms. Mikulski's Republican opponent in the coming election, Alan L. Keyes, has written a letter to fellow Republican Jack F. Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, calling HUD's directive regarding the chapel "highhanded . . . unwarranted and insensitive to the needs of Lemko's residents and the needs of our society."

Asking Mr. Kemp to step in and review the order by "a heavy-handed bureaucrat," Mr. Keyes wrote: "Surely, in this day of drug abuse, rising crime rates and family breakdown, a place of prayer is just the thing Baltimore residents need."

A spokesman for Mr. Kemp said yesterday that the department's legal experts are looking into the matter.

Meanwhile, Lemko's board and its residents have retained a lawyer, Joseph A. Scalia II, whose bid to become mayor of Baltimore failed in last year's Republican primary.

Mr. Scalia, accusing the local HUD office of "harassment" of his clients, said yesterday: "The residents are praying for success in their battle against the federal bureaucracy.

"My clients have spent their entire lives battling adversity. They've struggled through the Depression, two World Wars, and uncountable national and personal disasters. My clients are fighters, and they're certainly not afraid of a bunch of yuppie bureaucrats at HUD."

But Councilman Sfikas said that he hoped a court battle -- vowed by Mr. Scalia all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary -- could be avoided.

Urging that the non-denominational character of the Lemko chapel be emphasized, Mr. Sfikas said: "I don't think defending a suit about it in court is the best way for the federal government to spend its resources. In housing especially, there are a lot more serious problems than this that should be dealt with."

Lemko House, built in 1983 with financial help from HUD, has been fully occupied ever since and has a waiting list, according to the Rev. Ivan Dornic, pastor of the sponsoring Byzantine Catholic congregation.

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