Passing The Bill: Mass. Taxpayers To Subsidize Church Improvements

Under the separation of church and state, a church’s first duty is to pay its own way. All repair, upkeep and maintenance is the responsibility of the members of the congregation.

Generally speaking, members of the Unitarian Universalist denomination have been strong supporters of the separation of church and state. In my travels for Americans United, I often encounter UUs among AU’s membership, and I’ve spoken in some UU pulpits.

I was rather surprised, then, to read an editorial in the Gloucester, Mass., Times defending a Unitarian church that accepted $30,000 in local tax funds to pay for some work on its building.

Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church took the money to make improvements to the church building so that it would be more accessible to people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities that make mobility difficult.

This was certainly a laudable goal. In fact, a federal law requires most businesses and government facilities to be accessible to people with disabilities. Houses of worship are exempt from this law, but most want to be accessible to everyone. The Gloucester church’s desire to be more accessible is admirable. What I don’t understand is why the church believes it is OK to make the taxpayers pay for this.

The Times’ argument in favor of the taxpayer subsidy for a wheelchair ramp, lift, widened doorways and other improvements at the church boils down to two points: The church is old and has interesting architecture and it hosts a lot of community events.

Neither of these points is persuasive. There are a lot of old houses of worship in America, especially in New England. Under the separation of church and state, a church’s first duty is to pay its own way. All repair, upkeep and maintenance is the responsibility of the members of the congregation. Taxing people to pay for repairs at a house of worship is akin to the religion taxes that were common in some colonies prior to the adoption of the First Amendment.

The fact that the church holds community events is irrelevant. It’s nice that the church chooses to do this, but that doesn’t make it a community hall. The church remains a private entity, and its first goal is to spread its theology. Its leaders could decide tomorrow that they’re no longer willing to host public events and would have that right.

In editorializing in favor of the project, The Times applauded the church’s new accessibility and observed, “That’s the way it should be – and the way our Founding Fathers would have wanted it as well.”

Someone at The Times needs to read some history. There is no way the Founding Fathers would have supported a project like this. Thomas Jefferson warned incessantly about the evils of forced support for religion and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to put a stop to it.

James Madison loathed taxation to support religion as well. His famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” is essentially a list of 15 reasons why mandatory financial support for religion can never be squared with the right of conscience.

During his presidency, Madison was presented with a bill passed by Congress that would have given an Episcopal church a charge to care for the poor in Washington, D.C. No tax money was involved, but Madison still vetoed the measure. Why? The bill, Madison wrote in a veto message, “would be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”

Ironically, on its website, the Gloucester UU church boasts about its support for church-state separation. The church’s prominent steeple, the website asserts, “has guided generations of mariners into port as our founders fought for the early abolition of slavery, for women’s rights and separation of church and state as a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Those are sound principles. I wish they had been applied to the current issue.