Separation of church and state seems a simple enough notion: the founders wanted an America free of state-sponsored or -imposed religion. In recent years, this concept has gone even further as courts have often interpreted the constitution to mean freedom from, rather than of, religion. As a result, the public display of religion has increasingly disappeared.
It seems clear that in the America of 2011, our nation is not in danger of having a national religion imposed on it. The greater threat is the interference of the state with the church. Such is the scenario that has played out in Alexandria following the October fire that devoured the historic chapel on the Virginia Theological Seminarys ground.
At issue is whether the Episcopal Church has the right to raze any or all of its mostly destroyed historic chapel a church-owned building on church property as it sees fit, or whether government has the right to say otherwise. Its an instance where the revered principles of religious freedom and property rights collide with the responsibility Alexandrias government has to protect historic structures.
The chapel is unusable in its ruined state; its not even safe to enter. And the seminary had outgrown the small chapel long before the fire. With 300 students and 60 staff members, the seminary already had plans for a larger chapel.
Though a compromise is in sight, some would reject any plan the Seminary submits other than an exact rebuilding of the chapel as it was even if the cost proves prohibitive. If this path were followed, it would mean government would be telling the church how to spend its money. Further, it would essentially be defining the churchs mission for it: making it expend precious resources rebuilding the past rather than a better training ground for future church leaders. This approach is clearly unacceptable.
Fortunately, reasonableness seems likely to prevail. The VTS dean, Rev. Ian Markham, says the seminary is committed to preserving what it can of the wrecked structure. The plan they propose would reinforce and preserve two of the buildings stone walls, reinventing the structure as an open-air prayer garden. The seminary then would build its much-needed larger chapel elsewhere.
While this approach wont completely satisfy all members of Alexandrias Board of Architectural Review, most members appear inclined to support the plan. Their regret is understandable, as their mission is to preserve the historic in Alexandria.
The BAR needs to approve the Seminarys plan not only because its sensible, but because freedom of religion and religious institutions is a constitutionally protected right. Separation of church and state applies to the state just as much as it does the church.