Magazine article Church & State

Constitutional Storm: In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Some Religious Lobbies Are Seeking Federal Funding to Rebuild Houses of Worship

Magazine article Church & State

Constitutional Storm: In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Some Religious Lobbies Are Seeking Federal Funding to Rebuild Houses of Worship

Article excerpt

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast last October, among its casualties was Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, N.Y. Although the Rev. Mark Lukens' church sustained some damage, he doesn't want a government handout to repair it.

"It is bad for religious communities to take government money for religious purposes and buildings because it undermines the ability of religious communities and their leaders to be independent moral voices," Lukens told Church & State. "How can 1 call the government to task on a moral issue when I'm trying to do it from a pulpit the government paid for?"

A New York Times report estimated that the storm did more than $70 billion in damage to the states of New York and New Jersey. Included in that figure is damage to an unknown number of houses of worship, some of which say they can't afford to make repairs on their own.

As a result, many of these religious organizations are seeking assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild, even though traditionally houses of worship have not been eligible for federal taxpayer subsidies.

The reason for this is simple: The church-state separation safeguards in the U.S. Constitution bar public funding of religion. But that hasn't stopped some religious lobbies from pushing a bill through the U.S. House of Representatives that would give direct taxpayer aid to houses of worship.

At first glance, it would seem that those who want to rebuild religious sanctuaries with taxpayer dollars face long odds of success. In August 2005, many religious buildings near the Gulf Coast were damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. In the aftermath of that storm, the George W. Bush administration declined on constitutional grounds to allocate federal money to rebuild religious structures, a somewhat surprising move given that Bush was an outspoken Religious Right ally who championed "faith-based" funding.

The situation is different this time. In the wake of the storm, U.S. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) introduced H.R. 592. The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act makes churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship eligible for FEMA grants "without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility."

Sponsors of the measure included Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Grace Meng (D-N.J.) and Religious Right ally Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).

When Americans United learned of this constitutionally problematic proposal in February, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett advised all members of the House of Representatives to vote against the measure.

Garrett, who was born and raised on the Jersey Shore and whose parents' home was damaged by Sandy, had only a few days to try to convince lawmakers to reject the bill because it was rushed to the floor without the usual round of hearings.

In a Feb. 12 letter to lawmakers, Garrett wrote, "Although it may not seem easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid that they are ineligible for government grants, 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 and that the government should never support building religious sanctuaries."

Despite that warning, the bill passed 354-72 on Feb. 13. Critics, including Americans United, noted the spread of a great deal of misinformation before the vote, such as claims that current disaster relief regulations discriminate against houses of worship purely because they are religious.

In fact, Garrett told Church & State that current law allows disaster aid to all nonprofits, including religious entities, if they provide "essential services of a governmental nature to the general public. …

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