We all remember “Superstorm Sandy,” the monstrous tempest that left a wake of destruction along the northeastern shore. Since we’ve come to expect the federal government to foot the bill for natural disasters (including ill-advised construction in flood-prone coastal areas), it didn’t take long for congress to approve $51 billion in aid for homeowners, business owners, non-profit agencies, schools, and others affected by the storm.
Except for churches. The original bill did not include funding for rebuilding churches or synagogues affected by the storm, for the very obvious reason that the Constitution calls for a clear separation of church and state.
Some religious groups cried foul, however, claiming that it was wrong to discriminate against churches, synagogues, or mosques when free money for rebuilding is being handed out. Despite warnings from longstanding religious liberty groups that seek to guard against government encroachment on religious life, the House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday called the “Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013,” voting 354-72 in favor of adding houses of worship to the list of those who qualify for the goverment grants. The bill now goes to the Senate.
A quick Google search will show lots of people sounding off on the subject. In a helpful overview of the thorny issues involved, Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press identifies the players who sought government funding for churches: the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and conservative protestant groups including the Family Research Council and National Association of Evangelicals.
Those who argued against the obvious violation of church-state separation included Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty was a leader in the effort, arguing that “The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits government from providing outright grants or similar financial support to churches and other houses of worship,” according to an opinion letter from BJC Staff Counsel Nan Futrell.
Those who oppose direct federal funding of churches, even for reconstruction following a natural disaster, have tons of principle on their side. It should be an open-and-shut case: the Constitution does not allow the government to build (or rebuild) churches.
In this case, however, sympathy for the storm victims and charges of discrimination against churches that provide important services to the community blur the issue for many people and leave them susceptible to promoting a bad idea that could set a dangerous precedent and clearly runs afoul of the Constitution.
Responsible churches should purchase adequate insurance to guard against disasters, and denominational bodies or other supporters should do their part to assist churches with damaged facilities in getting back on their feet. Even if it’s made available, churches should resist the temptation of accepting taxpayer money.
The government should not be in the business of rebuilding churches.
Other opinions welcome …