In a bid that threatens to weaken separation of church and state, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 592) passed 354-72 in the House of Representatives. The legislation would specifically require FEMA to pay for reconstruction of houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy. This one isn't just sponsored by a New Jersey Republican (Chris Smith, Robbinsville); it's also been sponsored by a New Jersey Democrat ( Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson). Alfred P. Doblin of NorthJersey.com is taking exception to this bill, saying on the surface, it seems like a feel-good bill designed to help people victimized by Hurricane Sandy, but is really the government inserting religion into an agency that is meant to aid federal disaster victims, whether atheist or not.
Current regulations include private nonprofit facilities that provide essential services of a governmental nature to the general public. The list is wide but not all-inclusive. Smith’s bill inserts that a private facility operated by a religious organization shall be eligible “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.” No restrictions.
FEMA, which does not support the bill, is concerned that it will be compelled to fund not just walls and roofs, but the contents inside. That could mean baptismal fonts, stained-glass windows depicting religious scenes or even prayer books. This is a slippery slope we should not ski.
In the past, a 50 percent line was drawn. If more than 50 percent of a religious-owned facility was used for non-religious purposes, it could qualify for disaster relief funds. A sanctuary, while it may be put to occasional use as a shelter during a disaster, is designed for one purpose and that is worship.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, only one of three New Jersey Democrats who voted no, the others were Donald Payne Jr. and Rob Andrews, said in a statement for the congressional record on this bill: “Religious institutions are important to our communities. Unfortunately, as drafted, H.R. 592 is unconstitutional.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State takes the bill one step further to mean that taxpayer money would have to be used to help Fred Phelps rebuild his church should it ever be swept away by a tornado; Phelps' church (God Hates Fags) is universally reviled and listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Government cannot play favorites when it comes to religion. If that nice little Methodist church down the block is eligible for taxpayer dollars, then so is Phelps’ loathsome den of iniquity. The Constitution does not allow government to make a list of "good" religious institutions that get public funding and "bad" ones that don’t.
As a matter of fact, the First Amendment bars taxpayer funding of religion period – for the best interests of faith communities as well as human freedom.
Thoughtful religious voices have spoken out clearly on this issue.
The Rev. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said recently,“Theological and constitutional principles ensuring religious liberty must apply and be followed in the hard cases as well as the easy cases. We enjoy unprecedented religious liberty in this country precisely because, over the past 222 years, we have stuck to our principles of voluntary, self-sufficient religion and disallowed governmental help or harm, even in the tough cases.
“The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” he continued, “simply does not permit government to provide outright grants or similar financial support to churches and other houses of worship. Simply put, we do not allow taxpayer dollars to build churches; we should not allow taxpayer dollars to be used to rebuild churches either.”
Concluded Walker, “It is simply not a good idea — however our heartstrings are tugged — to give churches access to the public till. Our heritage of voluntary religion would be offended and constitutional difficulties are apparent…. It is important for us to do good, but we must never do so at the expense of compromising constitutional principles that, after all, have stood for more than two centuries to ensure religious liberty for all.”
The bill will now go to the Senate for approval. Many denominations have cited their disapproval with this bill. You may contact your representative here. The final word, by Reverend Mark Lukens of the Bethany Congregational Church in North Rockaway, NJ, says that taking government funding co-opts the purpose of religion and creates a conflict of interests:
Rev. Mark Lukens of the Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway argues that preventing the entanglement of religion and government protects religion more than it does government.
"When we take money from the government for our houses of worship for purely religious purposes, essentially what we are doing is we are allowing ourselves to be co-opted," he says.
It's like in the Gospel of Luke, he adds, when Satan offers Jesus the Kingdom of the World, and Jesus says, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only."
"We're supposed to be a moral voice in the public square," Lukens says, "and if we're receiving funds from the government, then that can neutralize that ability to be a moral voice. You can't bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak."
–NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Feb. 8, 2013