The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced last month that houses of worship that have been damaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters will qualify for certain forms of government aid to rebuild.
This change, brought about in part after prodding by President Donald Trump, is misguided. Former FEMA policy made it clear that houses of worship that provide services such as food and shelter to victims following a disaster can be reimbursed for that. They can also qualify for government-backed loans. Direct aid has been off limits.
There’s a reason for that – chiefly, we don’t use public funds to rebuild, refurbish or prop up houses of worship. We’ve never done that. Throughout our nation’s history, support for religious groups and their structures has come from voluntary giving.
There are practical reasons as well: The pool of funds available after a natural disaster is limited. In the past, the federal government has prioritized it so that grants for rebuilding go to entities that serve all of the public. Community centers, fire departments, libraries and so on were first in line.
Houses of worship, for-profit businesses and similar entities are expected to use a combination of loans, private insurance and funds raised privately to pay for repairs. Houses of worship, which most of the time serve a private interest, have never qualified for direct taxpayer support.
What some houses of worship are seeking here is not equal treatment but special treatment. And their desire to lay their hands on tax support will have consequences. Every public dollar funneled to a house of worship that serves mainly its members is one less than ends up in the coffers of a public entity that serves everyone.
But most importantly, the rebuilding of sanctuaries, steeples and other features of houses of worship that have no conceivable secular use will, in effect, compel taxpayers to support religion against their will. This is little more than a modern-day version of the church taxes that so infuriated dissenters in the colonial era. Opposition to such mandated support for religion is what led, in part, to the development of church-state separation in America.
Admittedly, this can be a difficult issue. People suffering in the wake of a natural disaster deserve help. But in most cases, siphoning tax money away from a public, secular institution to a private, religious one does more harm than good.
Americans are a naturally generous people. They are quick to reach for their checkbooks when they read of people displaced by hurricanes, floods and other disasters. Houses of worship would do well to tap into this vein offered by people voluntarily rather than seek coerced support through taxation.