Feb 13, 2013

Taxpayers should not be asked to pay for reconstruction of houses of worship damaged during hurricanes and other natural disasters, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United is urging the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against HR 592, a measure that would authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue direct grants to churches and other religious institutions. 

On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to take up the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013. Some religious lobbies are urging Congress and the Obama administration to approve aid to churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that were damaged last October by Hurricane Sandy.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “A fundamental rule of American life is that congregants, not the taxpayers, pay for the construction and repair of houses of worship. We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state.”

Americans United says public funding of religion violates the U.S. Constitution and a long line of federal court decisions bars government support for buildings used primarily for worship.

Lynn noted that the George W. Bush administration, which approved an array of “faith-based” subsidies, drew the line at FEMA funding of church reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

In a letter to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 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 houses of worship are not being singled out for unfair treatment as some claim. FEMA, she said, only funds nonprofits with facilities 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.  

“Although it may not be seem easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid that they are ineligible for government grants,” wrote Garrett, “the bar on the government rebuilding of houses of worship is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all. 

“It upholds the fundamental principle that no taxpayer should be forced to fund a religion with whom he or she disagrees,” she continued, “and that the government should never support building (“establishing” religion in its most basic form) religious sanctuaries.  And, it protects against the government favoring, or creating the perception of favoritism for, certain religions over others.”