Last week the US House of Representatives quietly passed an amendment to the Hurricane Sandy relief act that redefined churches so they could be given federal tax dollars directly to rebuild. Not only were churches redefined but they were moved into the group that will automatically qualify for federal disaster aid. Both points are extremely outside how churches are treated with regard to federal tax dollars and is a gross violation of the separation of church and state.
Here is the summary of H.R. 592:
Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 – Amends the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to include community centers, including tax-exempt houses of worship, as “private nonprofit facilities” for purposes of disaster relief and emergency assistance eligibility under such Act.
Makes a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, eligible for federal contributions for the repair, restoration, and replacement of facilities damaged or destroyed by a major disaster, without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.
Makes this Act applicable to the provision of assistance in response to a major disaster or emergency declared on or after October 28, 2012.
So what is wrong? Why can’t churches get disaster relief funds?
The Secular Coalition for America explains:
This bill would reverse years of Supreme Court precedent and directly conflict with the First Amendment to the Constitution. Additionally, permitting public grants for churches and other houses of worship would unfairly privilege religious institutions above secular institutions, many of which are not eligible for the grants.
“We certainly recognize the difficulties everyone in a disaster-stricken area faces, and our sympathies are with all who are affected,” said Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition. “But in our desire to help others, we must not do so at the expense of our First Amendment, which is in place precisely to protect religious liberty for all.”
Most nonprofits are instructed to apply for Small Business Administration Disaster Loans to rebuild. The law permits the government to provide grants to rebuild certain-but not all-nonprofit facilities. Only nonprofits with facilities used for emergency, essential, and government-like activities are eligible for grants. Typically even these nonprofits are required to first apply for an SBA loan before becoming eligible to receive any grant funding.
The act moves churches into the group of non-profits who would automatically get the funds instead of the usual group who have to apply and may not get the funds. It gives special treatment to churches.
Also as the Secular Coalition points out churches don’t have to file reports how the money was spent so we don’t know if the money was used only for rebuilding or more likely used to expand teaching of their particular religion. Tax dollars should never be used to teach religion.
This act sets a dangerous precedent.
The law was voted on under a suspension of the usual rules and after only 40 minutes of floor debate. It then passed the House 354-72. For a body that spent two weeks arguing about the parent law (Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act) this amendment shows how much religious privilege there is in this country.
The law now moves to the Senate. Hopefully there will be enough people complaining to their Senators about this unprecedented special treatment that it might be blocked.