Proposed aid for Washington National Cathedral draws criticism


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In another political aftershock from the summer’s rare East Coast earthquake, a bid by the mayor of Washington 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.

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 5.8 temblor Aug. 23.


But 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. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Washington-based Interfaith Alliance, agreed.

‘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, who toured the cathedral last week, said the edifice is a ‘national treasure’ that draws half a million visitors a year who are important to the capital’s economy. Others describe it 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 location of presidential inaugural prayer services and presidential funerals and memorial services.

The cathedral this year received a $700,000 ‘Save America’s Treasures’ grant from the National Park Service, which it now plans to put toward the cost of repairs.

Inspected by the same crew of rappelling engineers that scaled the Washington Monument to inspect for earthquake damage, the cathedral is planning 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 fracturing, and decorative work, such as as gargoyles, ‘took a beating.’

The cathedral hopes to reopen to the public Nov. 12.

The repairs could take years 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 FEMA’s denial of aid to the Virginia county that was at the epicenter of the quake.

Although about 1,000 homes in Louisa County were damaged, 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.


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--Richard Simon in Washington

PHOTO: Members of the difficult-access team of engineers Katie Francis, left, and Emma Cardini rappel down the facade of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington to check damage from the recent East Coast earthquake/AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta