The Constitution Applies to Disaster Relief: Federal Funds Are Not Appropriate Resources for Rebuilding Damaged Churches

You probably know by now that Congress is about to grant an additional $50.5 billion to the $9.7 billion in federal recovery aid for Hurricane Sandy. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and HUD will determine how the aid is distributed.

Can you anticipate a church/state conflict in this? Would it surprise you to learn that religious interests are pressuring Congress to force taxpayers, millions of whom are not religious, to contribute to the rebuilding of churches, temples and mosques. Don’t be surprised – be outraged, because it’s likely to happen absent sufficient secular resistance.

Maybe you think religions should be treated the same as other victims. If so, we have a little disagreement. I think disaster aid to religious institutions is unconstitutional, irrational, unjustifiable and deplorable. It’s worse than that, but this will do for starters.

So far, indications are that all citizens will be forced to pay to rebuild churches. In one state alone, over 200 Catholic parishes are expecting taxpayers to make them whole. Other sectarian groups are lining up for tax dollars, including the New York State Council of Churches, the United Jewish Association and a long list of others.

All such applications should be denied.

Churches damaged by the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were denied taxpayer aid on constitutional grounds in 1995 by FEMA and HUD. However, religious groups pressured Congress to intervene, which it did, thereby discarding the Constitution members had sworn (on bibles) to uphold. By an act of Congress, $6 million was distributed to damaged churches.

The amount of funds at stake in the current recovery effort is vastly greater than in the Oklahoma situation.

Suppose the religious forces seeking taxpayer-funded restitution were mostly Muslims, or Buddhists or Pastafarians or, God-forbid, atheists seeking to rebuild their godless meeting halls and freethinker centers for rational living? Would Congress override the Constitution again for minority faiths or, in the latter case, minority no-faith groups? Ha!

In an article supporting taxpayer funds for religious institutions damaged by Hurricane Sandy, a writer quoted Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York in favor taxpayer-funded restitution. Gee, what a surprise – the Catholic Cardinal wants money, even if some of it comes from infidels. Here is the Cardinal’s objective, no-special interest perspective: “The wind and waves did not discriminate when it came to destroying property. The houses of worship are the very bedrock of the neighborhoods now trying to rebuild. To not offer natural disaster assistance grants to rebuild a house of worship just doesn’t make any sense.” (Avi Schick, “Separation of Church and State, Disaster Edition,”  Wall Street Journal Houses of Worship Section, January 24, 2013.)

I wonder how many non-religious Americans consider the “houses of worship” to be “the very bedrock” of their neighborhoods? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, “none.”

Tom Flynn writes, “The nation’s religious composition is vastly different today than it was in, say, 1995—yet current law regarding separation of church and state and the rights of religious minorities has changed scarcely at all. American public life is no less redolent of Christianity, no less steeped in illegitimate privilege for the orthodox, today than it was in the 1990s.”(See Tom Flynn, “When ‘Current Law’ Is Not Enough,” February/March 2013, Volume 33, Number 2.)

The current effort to utilize public money for rebuilding religious institutions demonstrates the validity of Mr. Flynn’s assessment.

Government has no business paying to erect, maintain or repair houses of worship. Writing for American United for Separation of Church and State, Maggie Garret makes these salient points in support of that position:

  • This exclusion has been U.S. policy for more than 220 years.
  • Religious groups are expected to pay their own way.
  • Religions are not treated the same as other secular interests – the rules do not allow government funding, but they do enjoy tax exemption and are often free from regulations and oversight that other entities must follow.
  • It is not government’s role to provide places for people to worship or to subsidize sacred spaces.
  • Unlike schools, hospitals, libraries and community centers, houses of worship serve a private purpose – to promulgate specific theological points of view.

(Source: Maggie Garrett, “Storm Damage And Religion: Hurricane Sandy Didn’t Blow Away The Constitution,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, January 25, 2013.)

Was it not conservative Republican Right-Wing Christian groups screaming about getting big government out of their lives during the recent presidential election? Have they decided that government is pretty good, after all? Well, it doesn’t matter – the Constitution protects all taxpayers from having to subsidize any religions, except for the onerous tax exemptions given to religions, which are bad enough. Let’s not allow things to get much, much worse with disaster relief for religion.

Let’s resist this effort to impose a religion tax on all the people – churches and other religious institutions should do what homeowners and business owners do to safeguard their interests against disasters – buy good insurance policies.