Constitutional Outage: Senate Bill Would Give Federal Money To Houses Of Worship For Energy Upgrades

It’s great for buildings to be energy efficient. If members of a house of worship believe this is an important priority, they’ll pay for it. Passing that bill to the taxpayer isn’t how we do things in America.

Should houses of worship get public grants just because they are energy efficient? Two U.S. senators seem to think so.

Starting this afternoon at 2:30, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy meets to discuss several bills, including S. 717, the “Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act.” The bill would hand over federal dollars to nonprofits “for the purpose of retrofitting [their] buildings with energy-efficiency improvements.” The grants would cover up to 50 percent of a project’s cost and would not exceed $200,000.

The measure is sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and it includes a provision specifically allowing houses of worship to be eligible for the grants.

Americans United doesn’t have a position on whether secular nonprofits should be able to receive federal funds for making their buildings more energy efficient, but we are very much opposed to houses of worship receiving this benefit.

So Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett submitted written testimony to the subcommittee in which she explained that grants to houses of worship would threaten religious liberty and cause constitutional concerns.  

Garrett said if the government pays to directly subsidize repair and restoration in houses of worship, then it is effectively establishing religion in its most basic form, something the Constitution clearly forbids. The grants would also give the impression of religious favoritism, which is also unconstitutional.

Beyond that, Garrett noted, these grants would force taxpayers to support religious beliefs that they may not share.

Garrett is certainly right; we know plenty of Christians who don’t want to pay for improvements to mosques and atheists who don’t want to fund any religious buildings at all. Does Congress really want to create those sorts of conflicts for taxpayers?

We hope that the subcommittee doesn’t listen to anyone at the hearing who may have a blasé attitude about the damage these public funds could do to religious freedom. As Garrett said in her testimony, houses of worship receive all sorts of special protections in the United States. But they don’t get direct taxpayer support.

It’s great for buildings to be energy efficient. If members of a house of worship believe this is an important priority, they’ll pay for it. Passing that bill to the taxpayer isn’t how we do things in America. Congress must not authorize these direct grants for houses of worship.