April 2011 Church & State | Editorial

For more than 200 years, the rule in the United States was that voluntary donors should pay for the construction and upkeep of houses of worship.This changed dramatically during the presidency of George W. Bush. With the approval of Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Department of the Interior announced that it would start giving grants to “historic” religious buildings – even if they had active congregations.Old North Church in Boston (site of the famous lanterns that signaled patriot Paul Revere) was among the first recipients. It was a sly move on the Bush administration’s part. The church is undeniably historic and invokes patriotic feelings from many Americans.But it remains an Episcopal church, not a museum. Worship services are held there regularly, and Old North Church has a body of members.At the time, Americans United warned that this change in policy would have negative consequences. Soon, AU pointed out, tax money would start flowing to churches simply because they happen to be old or well connected.That prophecy has now come to pass. In February, the Interior Department announced a new round of grants. Among them is the Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal edifice in the nation’s capital known for hosting prominent officials’ funerals, memorial services and other quasi-official events.Public funds also went to two other Episcopal congregations, one in Philadelphia and one in Buffalo. Both date from around the time of the Civil War. Sure, they are old structures – but they are not especially noteworthy from a national historical perspective. There must be hundreds of churches just as old all over the country.Preservation of historic buildings is important. But preservation of the historic constitutional wall of separation between religion and government is much more important. If a church has an active congregation and regularly hosts services, it should pay its own bills.Bush, Ashcroft and Co. undoubtedly had a political goal in mind when they engineered tax aid to Old North Church: They wanted to get Americans comfortable with the idea of government aid to houses of worship to smooth the way for the “faith-based” initiative. They also sought to subtly erode the principle of church-state separation, which stood in the way of many Bush policy goals.As a result, we are slowly moving toward a system of taxpayer-funded churches – one of the very things the First Amendment was designed to prevent. Some federal courts don’t see this as a problem, but it is. Mandatory taxpayer support for houses of worship is the very antithesis of the separation of church and state. That a church building may be old, interesting looking or historically significant does not negate this.We urge religious leaders to take full advantage of our freedoms. They can spread their doctrines, seek new members and worship in their own way. But they should be aware that these activities should be supported by donors, not American taxpayers.