July 25, 2011

Government Paying to Repair Churches

Small historic churchWhen a church requires repair, we usually expect that the necessary funds to cover the costs of repair will come from what the congregation and other supporters have donated to the church over the years. That is, we expect the church to pay for whatever repairs are needed.

We generally do not expect the local government to pay the bills. And yet, in town after town across the United States, this seems to happen with surprising frequency. How can this be legal? It appears that if the church is considered sufficiently historic, local governments often overlook separation of church and state, permitting the use of public funds for church repair.

I received an email from a reader with the following account of this happening and the public reactions that followed:
I live in a city where a council approved the use of taxpayer money to restore a historic church. Despite living in a liberal area, I was still actually shocked that most of the 20+ comments on the local paper's site were very against this (I agree with them, but I'm still shocked). One person noted that because the issue wasn't voted on but decided on by government officials, it was akin to the government endorsing a religion and was, therefore, unconstitutional. Others said a version of, "My land is older than the church and I'm not tax-exempt, so how about sending me some public money to fix my roof?"
Interesting. Have you encountered anything like this where you live?

What do you think about the larger question of whether government should be supporting churches or other religious monuments determined to have historical significance? Are there circumstances where you think it could be acceptable?