$60 million Bible center planned for Independence Mall

Mayor Kenney speaks on Wednesday Jan. 11, 2017, about the American Bible Society's plans to build a $60 million attraction on Independence Mall that will show how the Bible and religious faith have guided the American experience.

The Philadelphia-based American Bible Society will build a $60 million center devoted to the importance and influence of the Bible in American life across from Independence Mall.

The Faith & Liberty Discovery Center, which is scheduled to open in fall 2018, is expected to draw 250,000 visitors annually, said Roy Peterson, president and CEO of the American Bible Society, during a news conference Wednesday morning.

Paid for with private funding, the 40,000-square-foot center will be housed on the first floor of the Wells Fargo Building at Fifth and Market Streets.

Such a facility would naturally fit near the mall, Peterson said, because America's founders relied heavily on the values and ideas in the Bible to create the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

"The framers were inspired by words of Scripture," Peterson said. To understand the DNA of America, he continued, "you need to know something about the Bible."

Mayor Kenney said at the news conference that the center will be "another great tourist attraction" at Independence Mall.

Daniel Dreisbach, an American University professor who is an expert on the Constitution, said a Bible center near Independence Mall is not a violation of the bedrock American notion of separation of church and state.

"There's a distinction between education and proselytizing," said Dreisbach, who acknowledged that he has received minor compensation from the Bible Society. "The Bible provided the basic building blocks of American civic life.

"Hebrew Scripture [the Old Testament] is important to the American founding."

Not everyone agrees.

"I'm not sure it's historically accurate to say the founders drew their thoughts from the Bible," said Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School as well as great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.

"I don't think the U.S. Constitution reflects Christian ideals or doctrine. The Bible is not useful to interpret the Constitution."

The founders' main concern about religion, Roosevelt concluded, was that it not mix with government.

He added that the center's proposed location in the Wells Fargo building would not pose a church-versus-state problem because the property is not part of Independence National Historical Park.

Francis Graham Lee, an emeritus professor of political science at St. Joseph's University, also said he believes the Bible played no role in the writing of the Constitution.

But, he added, the new Bible center will be in a good location that will be "good for business," attracting tourists.

The Bible center will be designed by Local Projects, which designed the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

Jake Barton, principal of the firm, said he sees the center as a "place that unites."

Architectural design will be led by SaylorGregg, a studio of JacobsWyper Architects of Philadelphia.

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