It looks like the battle over taxpayer aid to religion is about to heat up in Congress again.

Yesterday senators introduced a bill that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to give public funds to houses of worship that are damaged by hurricanes and other disasters. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) are the lead sponsors of the measure.

The bill, sparked by Hurricane Sandy, mandates the inclusion of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship in the list of institutions eligible for federally funded repair, restoration and replacement.

The measure may be well intentioned, but it’s a really bad idea. A cardinal rule of the U.S. Constitution is that government does not fund the construction or maintenance of houses of worship. A long line of federal court rulings confirms this important principle.

Americans United pointed this out when the FEMA funding matter surfaced in the House of Representatives earlier this year. In a Feb. 12 letter to House members, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted that houses of worship, like most non-profit organizations and businesses, are eligible for government loans – just not direct grants – to rebuild.

Garrett said churches, synagogues and mosques are not being singled out for unfair treatment as some claim. FEMA, she said, only funds nonprofits that are used for emergency services and other essential, government-like activities. Eligible facilities, such as community centers, must also be open to the general public. 

Unfortunately, House members declined to listen and passed a funding measure (HR 592) by a 354-72 margin. (This is more than ironic given the supposed urgency of cutting federal spending, not expanding it in an unconstitutional manner.)

Now the issue has cropped up in the Senate, and an aggressive and carefully coordinated campaign is under way to pass the Gillibrand/Blunt bill (it doesn’t have a number yet). On the same day the proposal was introduced, Rabbi Hershel Billet and Catholic Bishop William F. Murphy published an op-ed in the Newsday calling for federal disaster aid for houses of worship.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee are all asking for the government subsidy of religion. 

But other religious and civil liberties groups have joined AU in fighting for taxpayers’ rights to support only the religious institutions of their choice. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Interfaith Alliance, the Secular Coalition for America and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) have all opposed the funding scheme.

As the Rev. Brent Walker, BJC executive director, put it, “Theological and constitutional principles ensuring religious liberty must apply and be followed in the hard cases as well as the easy cases. We enjoy unprecedented religious liberty in this country precisely because, over the past 222 years, we have stuck to our principles of voluntary, self-sufficient religion and disallowed governmental help or harm, even in the tough cases.”

The Senate battle is going to be a tough one. We’ll keep you posted as events progress.