My friend David Stratton recently drew my attention to a potential issue arising from the U.S. government’s plan to shore up the banking system by buying up mortgage debt: what if one of those bundles of debt includes your church mortgage?

If the government owns the mortgage (and thus the lien) on a church building, does that create a potential problem with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment?

An article at acknowledges the concern, but downplays it. The government’s plan is to hold mortgages until their value increases enough to resell them, so any government ownership of church debt should be short-lived.

The thorniest problem would arise if a church defaults on its loan while the feds are holding the mortgage. Should the government foreclose on the mortgage and evict church members from their building? Should they give them any special consideration? Would that constitute an unacceptable entangling of church and state?

It seems to me that the biggest problem would arise if the government should give churches any more favorable treatment than homeowners or businesses who default on their loans: as long as everyone is treated the same, I don’t see a problem. If the government should allow defaulting churches to remain in their facilities while evicting business or homeowners, however, there would be the appearance (at least) of government-sponsored religion.

It helps, I think, to distinguish between a church and a church building. Any mortgage holder could end up owning the church building if a congregation defaults on its loan, but no one can own the church itself. Free exercise, it seems to me, does not equate to free rent. “You can’t worship here any more” is not the same as “You can’t worship.”

Am I taking too simple a view here? Are there other potential entanglements to consider?

What do you think?

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