Budget Bill Provision Would Let FEMA Rebuild Churches with Taxpayer Money

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which would fund the government for two years while increasing military spending and doing nothing to solve our immigration impasse, has another aspect to it which shouldn’t be ignored.

On page 49 of the bill, there’s an amendment that would allow Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to rebuild churches after a natural disaster.

“(C) RELIGIOUS FACILITIES. — A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility, shall be eligible for contributions under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility. No house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility may be excluded from receiving contributions under paragraph (1)(B) because leadership or membership in the organization operating the house of worship is limited to persons who share a religious faith or practice.”.

If it sounds like a fight we’ve already had before, you’d be right. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, three churches sued FEMA because they were deemed ineligible to receive taxpayer funds to rebuild their houses of worship. They don’t pay taxes, and they don’t provide any secular services, so there was no reason for them to get this money. Bear in mind that churches that, say, serve as homeless shelters after a tornado can already be reimbursed for any damage to their buildings as a result of providing that secular service. What churches are fighting for now is for the government to rebuild their sanctuaries even if they do nothing for the general public.

Last month, FEMA changed its own policies to allow churches to receive that money. But because that policy could change with a new administration, conservatives needed a way to make that change permanent.

That’s why Republicans inserted a similar provision in the new budget bill. Church/state separation groups are sounding the alarms.

The Secular Coalition for America’s Larry T. Decker called this move “unconstitutional and unconscionable“:

This bill would rebuild churches by knocking down the wall of separation between church and state. Contrary to the religious right’s talking points, houses of worship can already be reimbursed for any costs they incur while providing relief and assistance during natural disasters. This provision hidden in the Bipartisan Budget Act would give churches a special entitlement to taxpayer money by requiring FEMA to fund the reconstruction of religious facilities. It is unconstitutional and unconscionable for Congress to decree that churches are entitled to taxpayer funding. The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to decide for themselves what religious institutions, if any, they support with their money. If Congress votes to put FEMA in the business of building churches, it will violate this core constitutional principle and compromise the very foundation of our secular government.

They urge you to contact your members of Congress so they’ll vote no on the bill.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation even provided a sample message for your representatives:

As your secular constituent, I urge you to please vote against the language in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 that would allow FEMA funds to be used to repair houses of worship. This act will allow churches exclusive access to funding for their facilities used specifically for worship, regardless of whether or not they have actually provided relief to their community during or after a disaster. This is an affront to the American foundational principle that citizens may not be taxed to attend, erect or support houses of worship.

Please stand up for the enshrined constitutional idea that state and church remain separate and vote against this part of the budget act.

American Atheists said this move was “a recipe for fraud and abuse.”

“Congress is literally taking money from the individuals and communities who most need disaster relief and giving it to unaccountable houses of worship,” said Alison Gill, legal and policy director of American Atheists. “Houses of worship are exempt from even the most basic financial disclosure requirements, and giving them taxpayer funds to build altars, minarets, and holy arks is a recipe for fraud and abuse.”

“Either houses of worship get our tax dollars with zero transparency and accountability, or the government gets to tell them how to exercise their faith. Both are unacceptable and unconstitutional,” added Gill. “Our government should stay out of the church-building business.”

The Center For Inquiry also urged Congress not to turn FEMA into “a church collection plate“:

“The law has always provided funds for sectarian religious groups to repair facilities damaged in the course of providing general services to the public, such as sheltering victims of a hurricane,” noted Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel. “But the law has never allowed a church to insist that taxpayers be forced to pay for general repairs to its steeple or altar damaged by a natural disaster. That’s a direct use of government money to fund religion, and that’s a violation of the First Amendment.”

“It is telling that some members of the Senate are trying to sneak an attack on the wall of separation when must-pass legislation to address a string of natural disasters is coming to a vote,” said Jason Lemieux, CFI’s Director of Government Affairs. “This change would require Americans to fund the repair of religious buildings with no regard for their individual religious or moral beliefs. This contradicts both the spirit and the meaning of the Establishment Clause.”

“Houses of worship are already eligible to get government grants to cover damages incurred when serving their community,” he added. “They shouldn’t get public funds for their general activities. If churches want protection against damage from natural disasters, that’s what insurance is for.

When so many church/state separation groups share their concerns about a bill, there’s no doubt Republicans will be eager to pass it as quickly as they can. All the more reason to fight it.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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