Here’s one of those church/state separation concerns that’s legally solid but ethically tough to argue.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael devastated parts of Florida, leaving 74 deaths and roughly $25 billion in damages in its wake.
The government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has been assisting the state with money for recovery, and this week they announced another set of grants to reimburse expenses. One of those is a $1,973,993 grant to Hiland Park United Pentecostal Church in Panama City for “repairs to the sanctuary, fellowship hall, cafeteria, classrooms and other facilities.”
But that raises an important question: Why is the government helping a still-active (and not historical) church rebuild using nearly $2 million of taxpayer money?
The Freedom From Religion Foundation says that’s an illegal gift. They even point out that there was a Supreme Court case years ago involving taxpayer funding for a church’s playground. The Court said that was legal but only because the money wasn’t used to directly support worship.
That’s not the case this time around:
“FEMA may not use public resources to repair a church building that will be used for religious worship,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to FEMA senior official Robert Fenton Jr. “Awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to repair churches constitutes government endorsement of religion.”
It is important to note, FFRF adds, that denial of such governmental grants to churches would not violate their Free Exercise rights. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which a Missouri church was denied participation in a state program to resurface its school playground, the Supreme Court carefully explained that the case hinged on the fact that funding was not going to an “essentially religious endeavor.” Here, a grant used to repair and renovate substantial portions of a church’s buildings, including the sanctuary, promises to do exactly that. So, awarding these funds violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, while denying them does no harm to the church’s Free Exercise rights.
“Taxpayers of all religions — and no religion — are being forced to finance the reconstruction of a Christian place of worship,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However sympathetic one might be to the plight of those facing damage from so-called ‘Acts of God’ such as hurricanes, giving away nearly $2 million in precious taxpayer dollars to support a church is blatantly unconstitutional.”
FFRF points out that in a similar case in Kentucky, in which FEMA is using taxpayer money to expand a church in order to maybe-one-day use it as an emergency shelter, FEMA at least promised to review the grant. They haven’t confirmed or rejected that money yet. FEMA should take another look at this grant for the same reason.
No doubt the people in that church want to rebuild the place, but it’s not the government’s job to give them money in order to worship again. If the church leaders need money, they are free to fundraise for it.
(Image via Google Maps)