Is the National Cathedral a model of Church-State relations or a great big target that proponents of total separation of faith from civic life have not yet trained their sights on?
Eugene Kontorovich says that the Supreme Court might look closely at the National Cathedral as it considers Church-State debates over public displays of creches, crosses and menorahs. He says the Cathedral stands as a positive sign of a different approach to the religious and civil elements of public life.
Kontorovich points out that the Cathedral's parent body, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, was "constituted" by an act of Congress in 1893, and the cornerstone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. The charter Congress issued on the Feast of the Epiphany called on the Foundation to "establish…within the District of Columbia a cathedral . . . for the promotion of religion" and other worthwhile causes.
He says "No one has ever challenged the constitutionality of the Cathedral, and rightly not. The Establishment Clause, as understood for most of the nation's history, does not concern itself with such passive ceremonial nods to religion." To be sure, the establishment of the Cathedral in contrast to the current debate about church-state relationships indicate how the debate has shifted.
The debate has shifted the last 120 years. In the days of TR, the idea that a church could be chartered by a legislature without any expenditure of funds and endorsement of a denomination was considered sufficient separation between the government and religious life. Today, the debate is whether government can support any expression of religiosity at all.
This setup—official recognition, private management and funding—was arrived at specifically because neither Congress nor the clerics of the time wanted an established church. As Bishop Henry Satterlee, the first head of the Cathedral, put it: "The Framers of the Constitution . . . held, from religious conviction, the necessity of the separation of Church and State. . .Unlike the Medieval Cathedrals of Europe. . .Washington Cathedral will stand on the firm foundation of a Free Church in a Free State—free from any entangling alliance with the government; free to declare the whole Word of God without fear or favor of any political party."
The Cathedral's presumptive constitutionality suggests some broader points about Establishment doctrine. When the Supreme Court attempts to reconcile its increasingly broad prohibition against Establishment with the ubiquity of religious symbolism in public life, it resorts to some dubious distinctions. When the court sustains a particular religious display, it says that the symbols in question do not "endorse" religion, or are denatured—essentially "secular." Yet the governmental use of religious symbols, from among all possible symbols, necessarily reflects a favorable view of faith. To call such displays secular either trivializes the faith of those for whom they are meaningful, or simply underscores that their spiritual message is widely subscribed to.
The existence of the Cathedral illustrates the weaknesses of these tests. "Religious and patriotic associations have [always] been intertwined," Satterlee wrote, and thus some public religious forum is needed to give full scope to peoples' national feeling. (Consider the national motto, or the Pledge of Allegiance.) The Cathedral's charter suggests Congress agreed. It would be hard to pass off a working cathedral as predominantly secular.