On a mission from God

Pizza billionaire Tom Monaghan believes the Lord is with him as he lays the foundations for the town he calls Ave Maria — Hail Mary — on 2,000 hectares of land, 145 kilometres north of Miami…the community will be run on strict — some say unconstitutionally

The Toronto Star
March 2, 2006

On a mission from God
Pizza billionaire Tom Monaghan is pouring $400 million into creating a Catholic town in Florida And that means no birth control, no X-rated movies — and lots of controversy, writes Bill Taylor
Bill Taylor

Hail Mary, full of grace …

Pizza billionaire Tom Monaghan believes the Lord is with him as he lays the foundations for the town he calls Ave Maria — Hail Mary — on 2,000 hectares of land, 145 kilometres north of Miami.

Built around the United States' first new Catholic university in four decades and dominated by its 30-metre-high oratory, the community will be run on strict — some say unconstitutionally so — Catholic principles. No condoms or birth-control pills in the drugstores, no X-rated movies on cable TV, and you'll have to go elsewhere for Playboy and other "adult" publications.

Civil-rights activists are girding their loins for a court fight to enforce America's cherished separation of church and state.

Monaghan, one-time owner of the Detroit Tigers and founder of Domino's Pizza, sold the chain, with some 7,000 outlets worldwide, in 1998, reportedly for $1 billion (U.S.).

The 68-year-old former U.S. Marine was raised in a Catholic orphanage but has said his life was turned around 15 years ago when he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia books: "I decided to simplify my life. No more airplanes, no more yachts. It's been a big relief."

Instead, the man that the Britain's Sunday Times newspaper has nicknamed the "Pizza Pope," is pouring an estimated $400 million into Ave Maria University and the town he hopes will become home to 30,000 people. It is, he believes, "God's will."

Monaghan lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. There's no word that he might relocate to Ave Maria.

"If he wants to build a town and encourage like-minded people to come and live there, that's fine," says Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.

"We get into problems where he tries to exercise governmental authority."

Simon cites a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ownership of a town "does not always mean absolute dominion." Ironically, that case, in Chickasaw, Ala., involved a Jehovah's Witness distributing religious tracts against the wishes of the owner, Gulf Shipbuilding Corp. The court ruled against Gulf.

Other religious communities in the United States, including Hasidic Jews and Mormons, do not "wield governmental power along the lines of religious principle," Simon says.

In fact, Ave Maria may welcome Jews, Mormons and other religious groups. The project's public relations people are reluctant to give away too much "while we button up some legal issues," says a spokesperson. But, he adds, it won't be a Catholics-only community.

"It will have its principles, as have been stated, but it's a town. It's open to everyone. We hope a wide spectrum of people come to live there; people who share those principles, if not necessarily the same religious beliefs."

The Florida ACLU believes this "reinforces our point," says communications director Brandon Hensler. "If it were a closed-off community, that might be one thing. But in an open community, people might wish to participate, for example, in birth control. It's this fusion of government and religion … you have to make a distinction."

Work on Ave Maria's infrastructure is under way and the first residents are expected to move in next year. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic convert, was at last month's university groundbreaking. He called the town a place "where faith and freedom will merge."

State officials hail the project as a godsend for a depressed area on the edge of the Everglades once cultivated by migrant vegetable farmers. Environmentalists fear the town will encroach on the habitat of the already endangered Florida panther. But the project's website calls it "a visionary community" with a strong commitment to preserving the area's environmental resources.

"Ave Maria has been designed to human scale…. Neighbours care about neighbours, friendships span generations and a sense of pride is felt by every resident, student and worker."

The town's 11,000 "residential dwellings" range from "rental apartments to condominiums and from starter to estate homes. Prices should accommodate nearly every budget." The first residences are expected to be ready by mid-2007.

Project managers say they have 7,000 potential residents on their books with almost 60 per cent of retail and commercial space already leased.

Leases could be made conditional upon an agreement not to sell certain things. Under Florida law, drugstores don't have to provide contraceptives.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, which opposes the church's position on birth control and abortion, calls Ave Maria "country-club Christianity … I don't think in a democratic society you can have a legally organized township that will … try to restrict the constitutional rights of citizens."

University president Nicholas Healy claims the U.S. faces "catastrophic cultural collapse" and needs Ave Maria's projected 5,000 students to "help rebuild the city of God."

In a speech last year, Healy said Islamic fundamentalism "no longer faces a religious dynamic West."

With files from Star wire services

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