Constitutional Tremor: Earthquake Jeopardizes Wall Of Separation Between Church and State

Asking the taxpayers to pick up the tab sets a very bad precedent and jeopardizes a critically important edifice that protects us all: the wall of separation between church and state.

The National Cathedral is one my favorite monuments in Washington, D.C. It’s majestic, historic and architecturally interesting. Hey, you gotta love a church that has Darth Vader as one of its gargoyles!

But I don’t think the cathedral should get public funding.

Yesterday Washington Mayor Vincent Gray indicated that he plans to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $15 million to repair damage to the cathedral incurred during the Aug. 23 earthquake that struck the East Coast.

"This is far more than a religious institution,” said Gray, dismissing the church-state implications of the move. “This is an iconic structure."

There’s an element of truth to the mayor’s assertion. The cathedral is “iconic,” and it has played a role in national life as the host of memorial services and other events.

But the bottom line is this: the cathedral is a church, not a governmental entity.

Officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, it is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the base of the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. While the church often hosts interfaith events, it is, in fact, a private religious institution.

The damage to the cathedral is tragic, but the responsibility for its repairs lies with the congregation and others who freely choose to support the church, not the American taxpayers.

Asking the taxpayers to pick up the tab sets a very bad precedent and jeopardizes a critically important edifice that protects us all: the wall of separation between church and state. Americans contribute billions voluntarily in support of houses of worship and other ministries, but we shouldn’t be forced to do so by the government.

According to CNN, cathedral officials have a backup plan if public funding doesn’t happen.

Said Andrew Hullinger, senior director of finance and administration for the cathedral, "We will go back to our roots, essentially, and go coast to coast and seek donations to restore this national cathedral."

Imagine that! A church being supported by the voluntary contributions of people who believe in its mission. (Maybe church officials could also tap the 500,000 tourists who visit the cathedral each year.)

I’d gladly contribute to a national campaign to raise voluntary funds for the cathedral’s restoration, but I don’t think it’s right to take one thin dime from my taxes.