Feb 22, 2013

If the Rev. Fred Phelps’ hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church gets swept away in a tornado, should the taxpayers be responsible for rebuilding it?

Some folks in Congress seem to think so. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for reconstruction and repair of houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 592) passed 354-72.

As North Jersey Record editorial writer Alfred Doblin points out in a fine essay today, once Congress establishes the principle of public funding for repair of religious institutions after storms, it’s going to be a never-ending process that leads to really bad things.

“Natural disasters happen all the time,” Doblin observed. “Either there will be less FEMA money for everyone else or FEMA will need more money. The Westboro Baptists disrupt military funerals with homophobic slurs. I do not want my tax dollars to rebuild their Kansas-based church if a tornado blows it away. Nor would I want tax dollars to replace the sanctuary of some Florida preacher who wants to burn Qurans. These religious spaces are wombs where hate-driven ideologies are given life.

“[Bill co-sponsor Rep. William] Pascrell said in a phone interview Wednesday that FEMA could deny funding based on the hateful message of a given congregation,” Doblin continued. “But it cannot. We are either fully immersed in the baptismal pool or not.”

Doblin is exactly right. Government cannot play favorites when it comes to religion. If that nice little Methodist church down the block is eligible for taxpayer dollars, then so is Phelps’ loathsome den of iniquity. The Constitution does not allow government to make a list of "good" religious institutions that get public funding and "bad" ones that don’t.

As a matter of fact, the First Amendment bars taxpayer funding of religion period – for the best interests of faith communities as well as human freedom.

Thoughtful religious voices have spoken out clearly on this issue.

The Rev. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said recently, “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 First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” he continued, “simply does not permit government to provide outright grants or similar financial support to churches and other houses of worship. Simply put, we do not allow taxpayer dollars to build churches; we should not allow taxpayer dollars to be used to rebuild churches either.”

Concluded Walker, “It is simply not a good idea — however our heartstrings are tugged — to give churches access to the public till. Our heritage of voluntary religion would be offended and constitutional difficulties are apparent…. It is important for us to do good, but we must never do so at the expense of compromising constitutional principles that, after all, have stood for more than two centuries to ensure religious liberty for all.”


Americans United has created a special page where you can learn more about this issue. There’s also a link to our legislative page where you can let your House member know what you think of his or her vote. And stay tuned. We’ll need your help if the bill surfaces in the U.S. Senate.