Editorial: No federal grants to churches
While their compassion is commendable, members of Congress, including 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster, were wrong to approve House Resolution 582, a bill lifting the ban on using taxpayer money to rebuild churches, synagogues, mosques and other building used for religious purposes that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. (First District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter did not vote because of a family illness but supports the bill.)
While religious institutions are eligible to receive loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA rules prohibit giving them outright grants because doing so would violate the separation of church and state. That no taxpayer should be required to contribute to the support of a religion with which he or she disagrees has been a fundamental American principle since the days of James Madison, who warned that the sentiment still existed that “without some sort of alliance or coalition between government and religion, neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against.” The answer, Madison said, was to seek “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters.”
The bill, deceptively titled the “Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act,” passed the House 352-74, a vote based, we fear, more on concern for re-election than constitutional principles. It is now before the Senate, and we urge Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte to have the courage to vote “no.”
In the aftermath of the more devastating Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration did not seek, and Congress did not consider, lifting the ban on reconstruction grants to rebuild religious buildings used for worship. Facilities dedicated for a use that is at least 50 percent an “essential service of government nature” – a basement that serves as a food pantry or homeless shelter, for example – would and should be eligible to receive federal disaster relief. Structures used for worship would not.
Two Supreme Court decisions support the ban on federal disaster aid to rebuild religious institutions. They do so because otherwise, as a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union said, it “would be a form of compelled support for religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against.”
The bill’s sponsors believe that if taxpayer funds are doled out with no consideration to whether a nonprofit is a religious institution or not, or to what the applicant’s religion is, no violation of constitutional principles would exist. That stance, however, conveniently ignores the reality that some taxpayers would object to their money being used to support any religious organization. Their rights would be violated by the grants. Others, while they might countenance the use of their money to rebuild a church of one denomination, would violently object to assisting one whose tenets they consider abominable.
It is for that reason that the nation’s high court in 1973 ruled that “the state may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings, or renovate them when they fall into disrepair.”
Members of the U.S. Senate, like any other citizens, should feel free to open their own hearts and their wallets to assist religious facilities that fall prey to natural disasters, but not the wallets of their neighbors. The bill should be defeated.