What do federal energy policy and church-state separation have in common?
Apparently more than you might think. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a climate-change bill that allotted some hefty benefits to religious groups.
The measure, which was approved 219-212, included a provision that would provide subsidies to "faith-based" organizations and other non-profits to cover of up to 50 percent of the cost of retrofitting their energy systems.
What does this mean?
According to Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, it means the government will help religious institutions pay for everything "[f]rom new heating and air conditioning systems to lighting and windows, this legislation will assist our communal institutions to save costs, reduce energy use, and aid the environment."
Aiding the environment always sounds great, but here's the problem: the First Amendment prohibits the government from constructing or repairing buildings used for worship. Those funds must come from private donations. It's not the job of the state to make religious institutions green.
The provision for faith-based institutions was pushed by Diament and a coalition of religious groups that included the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches and United Jewish Communities, as well as the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Florida-based mega-church Northland; the Rev. Jim Ball, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network; and Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners.
Luckily, the Senate version of the climate-change bill makes no mention of similar subsidies for religion. Americans United is supportive of the Senate approach, and here's hoping that perspective prevails in the long run.
What is scary about all this is the continuing influence in Washington, D.C., of pressure groups that support public funding of religion. As Jacqueline L. Salmon wrote on the Washington Post's "God in Government" blog, the energy bill subsidy is "a testament to the lobbying clout of faith-based groups."
Those of us who support church-state separation have our work cut out for us.