Those living in areas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey are just beginning to rebuild their lives and clean up, and those in the path of Hurricane Irma are just trying to comprehend its devastation. We at Americans United continue to be concerned about everyone recovering from or in the midst of these historic storms and have reached out to many of our members and supporters in these areas to let them know we are thinking of them.
The Becket Fund has taken a different approach: It has chosen this time to file a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), claiming that the Constitution requires the government to rebuild churches with taxpayer dollars. Last week the group sued FEMA, which is already stretched thin trying to help those recovering from Harvey and still in danger from Irma. The Becket Fund claims that taxpayer dollars must pay to rebuild houses of worship, including erecting new church steeples and restoring sanctuaries.
Here’s the bottom line: The government is not in the business of building churches, synagogues and mosques -- even after a terrible disaster. That is at the core of the First Amendment, and we must stand by it in good times and in bad.
Even in the wake of a hurricane, the government can't spend taxpayer money to rebuild houses of worship.
President Donald J. Trump then added his two cents, tweeting Friday night that churches should get taxpayer money.
(It’s also worth noting that Trump wants to change current law to allow these same tax-exempt churches to endorse him for president, and the Becket Fund just jumped into a federal lawsuit to try to make that happen.)
As someone who was born and raised at the Jersey shore and whose community was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, I certainly appreciate the serious needs people face in the wake of these devastating storms. I’m also grateful for the good works that religious and non-religious organizations do in their communities in response to disasters like Sandy, Harvey and Irma. But we can’t let this be used as a premise to undermine the religious freedom that protects us all. Religious freedom is one of our nation’s most cherished values and it is best protected by a healthy distance between religion and government.
To many of us, the line between church and state has already become too blurred, but it should be quite clear that asking taxpayers to rebuild houses of worship goes way too far.
For those of you interested in the nitty gritty details surrounding this issue, we thought we would clear up some of the “alternative facts” making the rounds on Twitter. Here’s the truth:
* Houses of worship are eligible for government reimbursements for services they provide at the request of local governments, such as serving as a shelter for people displaced by the storm.
* Houses of worship are eligible for government loans to rebuild after a storm, as are most nonprofit organizations and businesses.
* Houses of worship are not eligible for direct government grants to rebuild after a storm, but neither are most nonprofits. These grants are limited to a very narrow set of nonprofit organizations that perform emergency, essential and government-like activities that are open to the general public. These grants are not at all like fire and police services because they are not available to most, let alone all, businesses, nonprofits, private residences and other buildings.
FEMA’s current rules should stay as they are. The rules not only protect the freedom of conscience of each taxpayer – because we should get to decide for ourselves whether or how to support religion – but also serve to protect the autonomy and independence of houses of worship.
Remember, the strings that come attached to government funding ultimately weaken religion.