The District of Columbia mayor seeks federal funds to repair the historic structure that was damaged in the Aug. 23 quake. But some say asking taxpayers for the money violates the separation of church and state.
WASHINGTON — In another political aftershock from the summer’s rare East Coast earthquake, a bid to secure federal aid for the damaged Washington National Cathedral is drawing criticism from those who say it runs counter to separation of church and state.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray is seeking $15 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for repairs to the cathedral, which was seriously damaged in the magnitude-5.8 quake that shook the East Coast Aug. 23.
Joseph L. Conn, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, blogged on the organization’s website: “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 Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, agreed.
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“The United States government should not be using the money of taxpayers who affiliate with many different religions — or no religion — to build, repair or maintain religious institutions.”
But Gray said the edifice is a “national treasure” that draws half a million visitors a year who are important to the capital’s economy. Other supporters describe the cathedral as a national landmark deserving of government repair funds.
“This is a church, and we would never say that we weren’t,” Andrew Hullinger, the cathedral’s senior director of finance and administration, said in an interview. “But we are a whole lot more than just a church.” The cathedral has been the site of presidential inaugural prayer services and presidential funerals and memorial services.
The National Cathedral, officially the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is part of the Episcopal Church. Congress granted a charter in 1893 to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to establish the cathedral.
The structure was built over 83 years, funded by donations large and small from all across the United States.
The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation continues to operate the cathedral, and its construction, maintenance and upkeep have been privately funded.
The cathedral this year received a $700,000 Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service, which the cathedral now plans to put toward the cost of repairs.
Inspected by the same crew of engineers who rappelled down the Washington Monument to check for earthquake damage, the cathedral will also be the focus of a fundraising drive.
Scaffolding is up on the outside, and netting is in place in the nave as a precaution against falling debris.
All four damaged stone pinnacles have been removed from the 300-foot central tower for repair. The building is structurally sound, Hullinger said, but the flying buttresses suffered stress fractures, and decorative work, such as gargoyles, “took a beating.”
Officials have announced they will reopen the cathedral Nov. 12, to consecrate the Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
The cathedral will reopen to the public for tours on the afternoon of Nov. 13, after morning worship services.
The earthquake repairs could take years, however, because the cathedral is handmade with individually carved stones.
“Even the stones that don’t need to be repaired still need to be disassembled to reach parts that were damaged,” Hullinger said.
There has already been controversy over the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s denial of aid to the Virginia county that was at the epicenter of the quake.
About 1,000 homes in Louisa County were damaged, but FEMA determined that the damage to dwellings “was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the commonwealth, affected local governments and voluntary agencies.”
The decision angered Virginia officials, who are appealing.