Senators Exploiting Disaster to Turn FEMA into a Church Collection Plate, says Center for Inquiry

For Immediate Release: February 8, 2018
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785


The Center For Inquiry (CFI) today expressed its exasperation that the Senate is using the Bipartisan Budget Agreement to further breach the wall of separation between church and state by permitting taxpayer money to be awarded to churches to rebuild and improve facilities damaged in natural disasters.

Buried in the 650+ page bill is a change to the Stafford Act adding “houses of worship” to the list of organizations which are entitled to funding through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants. This funding is intended to go to private facilities that perform essential social services for the general public and is critical for communities recovering from the devastation of natural disasters, allowing community centers, homeless shelters, and senior citizen centers to resume servicing their community as quickly as possible. The Senate’s alteration requires that no religious group be excluded “because leadership or membership in the organization operating the house of worship is limited to persons who share a religious faith or practice.”

“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.”

This proposed change to the law follows a similar announcement earlier this year of new FEMA funding rules by the Trump administration. It represents a change long sought by the religious right, and a continuation of this administration’s willingness to privilege religion regardless of the Constitution.

“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.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at