Historic Shift

After Changes In The Courts And Bush Policy Revisions, The Federal Government Is Awarding Preservation Funds To Churches

On Jan. 28, 1900, Episcopal Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee of Washington, D.C., stepped into the pulpit of a local church and appealed for funds to build a new cathedral in the nation’s capital.

Satterlee told the congregation that Pierre L’Enfant, the original architect and planner of Washington, had proposed the construction of a national church as part of the city plan. He noted that America’s founders, mindful of separation of church and state, did not follow through on that part of L’Enfant’s design.

Satterlee was seeking support to make L’Enfant’s vision a reality – with privately raised funds. The next day, The New York Times reported on his sermon.

The bishop, The Times pointed out, insisted that his church “stands for the principle of irrevocable separation of church and state” and added, “The National Cathedral will have no favors to ask or receive from the government, no proselytizing work to do.”

The appeal was a success. Money poured in, and work soon began on the cathedral, which now sits atop Mount St. Alban in the heart of the city. The structure – known formally as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul – cost $65 million, all of it privately raised.

Over a century later, however, Satterlee’s concept of voluntary funding has been compromised. In February, the U.S. Interior Department announced that the church would receive a $700,000 grant for foundation repairs, metal work and restoration of stained-glass windows.

The government grant to the National Cathedral was jarring to advocates of church-state separation. Although the church has hosted many public events on behalf of federal officials over the years, the “national” in its name is purely informal, not governmental. The cathedral is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and is owned by a private foundation. It holds events such as lectures, workshops and church tours to help pay its bills and has a congregation of about 500 members.

At the same time, the Interior Department announced that two other Episcopal churches were receiving government grants. Trinity Church in Buffalo got $178,615 for repair of its stained-glass windows and eaves, and St. Mark’s Church in Philadelphia was awarded $700,000 to “support the repair of the exterior of the church, parish house and rectory buildings.”

Unlike the National Cathedral, the Buffalo and Philadelphia churches are purely local affairs. Built in 1847, St. Mark’s is considered a prime example of a Gothic style of architecture designed to invoke churches from the Late Middle Ages of Europe. Highly popular in the mid-19th century, the Gothic revival caught on among many religious denominations but was especially big in Episcopalian and other Anglican communities.

St. Mark’s is undeniably an interesting-looking building, but its style is not especially uncommon. Gothic revival churches dot the East, Midwest and South. To critics, the grant had all of the trappings of an earmark.

For much of American history, it was unthinkable to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for church renovation and repair. In fact, religious leaders boasted about their ability to raise private funds for this work.

In 1990, the final stone was set atop one of the National Cathedral’s towers, marking the official end of construction. At that time, a spate of stories in the media talked about the church’s history, and many pointed out that the cathedral’s success was brought by donations large and small.

The Rev. Robert L. Maddox, who was Americans United’s executive director in 1990, took note of the milestone in Church & State.

The National Cathedral, Maddox wrote, “is symbolic of American religion generally. Buildings are erected, programs conducted and ministries undertaken in infinite variety. Millions of people involve themselves in religious life on a regular, voluntary basis, but tax money does not flow into church coffers.”

Times have changed. Once it was commonly understood that clergy whose houses of worship needed restoration and repair should look to their members. The separation of church and state meant that government wasn’t in the business of fixing up churches.

Today, due to a number of reasons, that standard is being eroded. In addition to asking their members for support, a growing number of houses of worship are also turning to the taxpayers.

A seismic shift occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush. Prior to the Bush administration, federal agencies denied aid to houses of worship, citing a 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Tilton v. Richardson, which held that the government could not award grants to church-related colleges to create or repair structures unless it were clear that those buildings would never be used for religious purposes.

In 1995, the U.S. Justice Department cited Tilton in a memo, declaring that under the National Historic Preservation Act, federal courts would “likely hold that making historic preservation grants to churches and other pervasively sectarian properties is inconsistent with” the First Amendment.

The Bush-era Justice Department had other ideas. Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted that churches should be able to obtain preservation grants.

Ashcroft, a staunch Religious Right ally, used a clever public relations ploy when awarding the first grants: They went to houses of worship with undeniable historic significance. In 2003, then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton announced that Old North Church in Boston and Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., were getting government support for repairs.

Old North Church is well known as the site of the famous lanterns hung as signals for Revolutionary War-era patriot Paul Revere (the noted “one if by land, two if by sea” celebrated in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”).

Although less well known, Touro Synagogue has a storied past as well. The synagogue is home to a 1790 letter from George Washington affirming America’s commitment to religious liberty and assuring Jews that their rights would be protected in the new nation.

But Old North Church and Touro Synagogue are not museums. Both have active congregations and hold regular worship services. Awarding the grants, Bush administration officials bypassed that issue and instead played up the historic nature of the structures. At a media event at Old North Church, James Towey, then director of the Bush “faith-based” office, insisted that other historic houses of worship could get federal money as well.

In 2007, advocates of church-state separation received another blow when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Justices – by a 5-4 vote – significantly narrowed the right of taxpayers to go to court to block government funding of religion, holding that only grants that were directly authorized by a legislative body (such as Congress) can be challenged.

The Hein ruling means that if allocations to churches come from a federal agency’s discretionary funds as opposed to a direct congressional appropriation, they can’t be challenged by taxpayers.

In addition, a federal appeals court in 2009 upheld government grants to three churches in Detroit. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in American Atheists v. Detroit Downtown Development Authority that the city had distributed money to many buildings for façade improvements and that houses of worship could be included. (Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case, asking the court to strike down the funding.)

In 2004, AU announced litigation after the U.S. Congress voted to allocate $10 million in federal funds to repair several colonial Catholic missions in California. Virtually all of the churches function as houses of worship, and the funds were to be used for, among other things, restoring religious art and artifacts.

AU believed the Doe v. Norton lawsuit would be a good test case of government funding of historic houses of worship, but the case never got off the ground. Although Congress did vote to authorize the money, funds were not appropriated for the missions. After more than a year passed with no tax money forthcoming, the issue became moot, and Americans United voluntarily dismissed the suit in January 2006. Now Hein makes lawsuits difficult to bring.

Historic churches have paid their own way for years. Why is this suddenly an issue now?

Part of the answer may be found in the changing face of American religion. Polls show that Americans remain very interested in spiritual matters, but more and more people are also content to explore theology outside of traditional houses of worship.

Church attendance rates have dipped in recent years, meaning there are fewer people sitting in the pews to pay the bills. (One survey found that between 1992 and 2003, the average attendance at a typical church dropped by 13 percent.) In light of this, some older American churches are facing a dilemma that has long hectored houses of worship in Europe: How to pay the bills when the congregation has fled. In Europe, where state-established churches tend to be the norm, the answer is to operate partly as a tourist attraction while seeking help from the state.

At the same time, churches face daunting upkeep costs. The National Cathedral is a large and impressive structure – but it’s also an expensive one to maintain.

In May of 2008, officials at the cathedral announced a round of belt-tightening measures. Thirty-three employees were laid off, and a popular greenhouse on the grounds was shuttered. The Washington Post reported that the cathedral’s endowment, once as high as $70 million, took a hit during the economic downturn.

Facing pressures like these, some religious communities are succumbing to temptation and accepting some of Caesar’s coins.

The days when a bishop like Satterlee would stand before a crowd and say without apology that he needed their help because the government could not be expected to chip in may be fading away.

That, Americans United says, is a mistake. AU believes that all active houses of worship, no matter what their age or condition, should look to support from their members or sponsoring denominations.

In an op-ed published by the popular online site The Huffington Post, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn deplored the trend of churches turning to the taxpayer for assistance.

“In this country, churches are expected to pay their own way,” Lynn wrote. “The men and women occupying the pews pay for building construction and upkeep. Anything else is a religion tax.”

Continued Lynn, “The fact is, many American churches are historic. Are we going to put them all on the taxpayers’ bill?”

The Rev. Rudy A. Pulido, a retired Baptist minister in St, Louis, agrees. Pulido, who served 30 years in the pulpit, said religious leaders who seek tax assistance fail to give their congregants enough credit.

“The First Amendment does not have an asterisk assigned to it that permits assistance to a church because it is rendered as historic,” said Pulido, who serves on AU’s National Advisory Council. “The separation of church and state serves both the state and the church when the church does not look to the government to fund God’s work.”

Added Pulido, “I empathize with historic churches, but if they feel federal funds are the answer to their financial dilemma, they are showing little faith in their mission. They must understand that the principle of religious liberty must not be compromised for the sake of saving a historic facility unless they are willing to turn the building over to the state for a historic landmark and undertake ministries in a building their members can support.”