Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill, H.R. 592, that would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and make houses of worship — think churches, synagogues, and mosques — eligible for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on terms equal to other eligible non-profit facilities.
The bill, otherwise known as the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, passed by a vote of 352-74.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) opposed this measure as misguided and unconstitutional, and urged its members via an action alert to contact their U.S. Representative and tell him or her to vote “no.”
Several of our members, as well as many U.S. Representatives who spoke during floor debate in support of the bill — such as sponsor Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and co-sponsor Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) — claimed that opposition to H.R. 592 was equivalent to discrimination against religion, and a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
I would like to briefly explain why CFI rejects this reasoning, and voiced opposition to H.R. 592.
Before getting to the constitutional merits of H.R. 592, I should first directly address an important misconception advanced by its advocates: that current government policy regarding construction work on houses of worship is discriminatory.
Like most other nonprofit organizations, some houses of worship are eligible for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, so long as they meet certain requirements. But FEMA grants work differently. As my colleague Maggie Garrett of Americans United for Separation of Church and State so clearly explains:
… houses of worship, like most non-profit organizations and businesses, are eligible for government loans—just not direct grants—to rebuild. In addition, houses of worship are not the only nonprofits that are ineligible for direct grants for reconstruction. To the contrary, only nonprofits with facilities that are used for emergency, essential, and government-like activities are eligible. And, eligible facilities, such as community centers, must also be open to the general public. To say that houses of worship are singled out among all other non-profits, therefore, is untrue. It is similarly inaccurate to claim that FEMA grants should be extended to houses of worship because the grants are akin to “general government services,” such as police or fire. FEMA grants—unlike general government services —are not available to every business, nonprofit, private residence, or other building.
As such, H.R. 592 makes no sense from a policy perspective. It is one thing for the government to provide loans or grants to facilities which offer emergency services or serve the public in some other way, and which also happen to be affiliated with a religious group. It is another for the government to provide loans or grants to build or rebuild places dedicated solely to religious activities.
Which is precisely why it is also unconstitutional. From a institutional perspective, amending current law to allow government funding for the rebuilding of places of religious activity is not supported by, but actually violates the First Amendment, which mandates that the government should make no law respecting an establishment of religion. It also violates decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence, which has fleshed out the principle of separation of church state as requiring the government to remain neutral on matters of religion, neither supporting or advancing, nor hindering or restricting religious practice.
In fact, H.R. 592 directly contradicts two Supreme Court rulings — Tilton v. Richardson (1971) and Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (1973) — which mandate that “the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place” and “it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair.”
From an individual perspective, H.R. 592 also runs against the notion that no taxpayer should be forced to fund a religion with which he or she may disagree. This idea can be traced back to the Founding Fathers. For instance, James Madison wrote in the 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments:
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.
True religious freedom protects the conscience of the taxpayer by ensuring that his or her money is not used to support or advance religion with which he or she may disagree. It protects a Jewish person from funding a mosque and Islamic activities; it protects an evangelical Christian from funding a church and Catholic activities; it protects an atheist from funding any religious activity; and it protects us all from funding, say, the Westboro Baptist Church.
Two members the House, notably Rep. Jerry Nadler (R-NY) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), understand this message, and had the courage to speak out against H.R. 592. Seventy others joined Reps. Nadler and Scott in voting no.
To be clear: CFI realizes that Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters cause immense damage. But, even in times of extreme difficulty, we believe that the government must adhere to reasonable policymaking and the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Let’s hope there are at least 51 U.S. Senators who feel the same way.