You might remember that three churches in Texas sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Hurricane Harvey, saying they deserve taxpayer money for disaster relief efforts. Well, it seems some politicians don’t want to want to wait for the judicial system to do its job, because they’ve introduced a bill that would skip over the litigation entirely.
The churches filed suit in September, challenging FEMA’s longstanding policy of withholding money from religious organizations to avoid any excessive entanglement between church and state, and a federal judge recently recused himself from the case. The litigation is pressing on, but one congressional committee wants to circumvent the case entirely.
Religion News Service reports that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (or H.R. 4460), which will now move to the House floor for deliberation:
The bill received strong support from both sides of the aisle despite objections that using taxpayer funds to rebuild houses of worship would violate the separation of church and state. Proponents of the measure argue that religious groups, which are often at the forefront of disaster relief efforts, are being unfairly disadvantaged.
Unfortunately, although people on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over the bill’s ability to disrupt separation of church and state, the issue wasn’t even discussed in the committee meeting. RNS says First Amendment issues “were not brought up” at the hearing.
Instead, the discussion focused on other aspects of the bill, such as requirements for competitive bidding after a $300 million contract was given to a tiny Montana firm to repair Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure damaged in September by Hurricane Maria.
I don’t know if there is some reason I’m not aware of that we should give churches (and mosques, etc.) special treatment by providing them with taxpayer money, especially since we likely wouldn’t have an accounting of where the money would be spent and because that money would free up the churches’ own funds for proselytizing purposes, but I do think the issue should be discussed.
I won’t pretend to know all the answers here, but I do know it’s incredibly important that we protect the separation of church and state, which is something our founders fought for — and for good reason. It’s usually best to let the court system do its job, including entertaining appeals up to the Supreme Court, to determine if this idea is even constitutional. At this point, I’m not convinced it is.
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