By Bob Allen
A religious-liberty watchdog group is urging defeat of a bill before Congress to authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue direct grants to churches and other religious institutions damaged last October by Hurricane Sandy.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter Feb. 12 urging members of the U.S. House of Representatives to oppose HR 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, scheduled for debate on the House floor Feb. 13.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), would allow for houses of worship to qualify for FEMA grants available to other nonprofits like museums, zoos and performing-arts centers that provide essential services “of a governmental nature” to the general public.
“Throughout the disaster, faith communities served the needs of their devastated neighborhoods providing such things as hot food, warm clothes and shelter, even though many of those houses of worship were themselves severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy,” Smith, whose congressional district was hit hard by Sandy, said in a press release introducing the bill.
“These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage,” Smith said. “My bill would clarify that FEMA cannot unjustly and unreasonably discriminate against houses of worship in determining grant eligibility. Religious organizations have received federal support in other disasters and for homeland security upgrades, and helping in this disaster should be no different.”
But Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said taxpayers should not be forced to pay for reconstruction of buildings used primarily for worship.
“A fundamental rule of American life is that congregants, not the taxpayers, pay for the construction and repair of houses of worship,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state.”
According to media reports, more than 200 houses of worship damaged in Superstorm Sandy have applied for FEMA aid. Under current law, churches may qualify for loans but not grants, due to constitutional concerns around the separation of church and state. With the private sector increasingly more involved in providing essential services like disaster relief, some have begun to view such limitations as discrimination against groups that have a religious mission.
The Meng-Smith bill has received backing from groups as diverse as the American Jewish Committee, Family Research Council, National Association of Evangelicals and U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and from individuals including Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and First Amendment expert and University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock.
Maggie Garrett, AU’s legislative director, wrote in the letter to House members that while it is not always easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid they are ineligible for government grants, the ban on public funding of churches is in place for good reason — to protect the religious liberty of all Americans.
“It upholds the fundamental principle that no taxpayer should be forced to fund a religion with whom he or she disagrees, and that the government should never support building (‘establishing’ religion in its most basic form) religious sanctuaries,” she wrote. “And, it protects against the government favoring, or creating the perception of favoritism for, certain religions over others.”
Garrett said houses of worship receive special treatment in the Constitution, such as exemptions, accommodations and tax deductions. Restrictions on government funding of religion, she said, are also a “special protection,” in that “they protect the conscience of the individual taxpayer, safeguard the autonomy of the religious institution and ensure an equal playing field for all religions by prohibiting the government from playing favorites.”
Lee Spitzer, executive minister and senior regional pastor of American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, said he does not know of any churches in the region that have applied for FEMA aid, but that One Great Hour of Sharing funds from American Baptists Home Mission Societies helped more than 30 ABCNJ churches with post-Sandy rebuilding projects by covering costs up to their insurance deductibles.