THE BLOG

Don't Pass Me the Plate for Your Church's Upkeep

02/16/2011 09:13 am 09:13:10 | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm a minister, so it's no surprise that I'm fond of church architecture. From gothic brownstones and simple wooden country churches to gleaming marble temples and modernistic structures of glass and steel, I continue to be amazed at the variety of edifices people have constructed to serve as houses of worship.

I'm also amazed that in this country, we have paid for these structures, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands all over the land, with the private donations of the faithful. It's a testament to how seriously Americans take religion.

At least that used to be the case. Lately, I've noticed a disturbing trend: Churches deemed "historic" are seeking taxpayer funds for repair and upkeep.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced dozens of grants to historic structures under its "Save America's Treasures" program. Scanning the list, I was surprised to see three churches on the list.

Among them is the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I drive by this structure often. It is an amazing building that soars above the din and distractions of daily political life in the nation's capital. Over the years, I have attended many events there.

Despite its name, the cathedral obviously isn't owned by the government. Public events often take place there, and political leaders are a fixture. But the cathedral is an Episcopal church and belongs to the local diocese. It's not a museum; it is a living, active church where people regularly attend worship services.

Despite this, the church is receiving $700,000 in tax money to pay for foundation repairs and to fix stained-glass windows, doors and metalwork. I'm disappointed. Many people who have learned of the structural problems have contributed for repairs in recent years. I'm actually going to send them a few dollars myself, voluntarily, but I shouldn't be forced to support any house of worship against my will, and neither should anyone else.

The fact that the cathedral is historic or that it plays an important role in public life is irrelevant. In this country, churches are expected to pay their own way. The men and women occupying the pews pay for building construction and upkeep. Anything else is a religion tax.

The fact is, many American churches are historic. Are we going to put them all on the taxpayers' bill?

We seem to be moving in that direction. Also on the Interior Department list for a $700,000 public grant is St. Mark's Church in Philadelphia. Built in 1847, it's a fine example of gothic architecture. But there are churches just as old and just as interesting looking all over the East, Midwest and South. If they are in need of repairs -- and I'm sure some of them are -- members of the congregation ought to pay for that.

The third church, Trinity Church in Buffalo, is receiving nearly $200,000 in tax money for various repairs. The Interior Department points out that the church was designed by "noted American architect Bertram Goodhue." Yes, the church has interesting features. Is that all it takes to trump the First Amendment principle that no one can be compelled to support religion?

Two hundred years ago this month, a bill landed on the desk of President James Madison that would have officially incorporated an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia. Although the bill didn't offer any tax funds, it did outline how the church was to be organized and what steps were to be taken if the minister resigned. It also authorized the congregation to help the disadvantaged and to offer schooling to poor children.

Madison vetoed the bill. He wrote to Congress, "[T]he bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited, by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions and violates, in particular, the article of the Constitution of the United States, which declares, that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

Madison knew that government exceeds it authority when it acts to support religion. The offense is all the worse when that support takes the form of your tax dollars. The tab for building, repairing and maintaining an active church should always be paid by its members. The fact that the church is old, looks interesting or was designed by a noted architect does not relieve the congregants of this fundamental responsibility.

As I said, I love the Washington National Cathedral and the other houses of worship that dot D.C. and our land. I love them even more when they abide by the great American tradition of church-state separation by paying their own bills.