Written by Don Byrd
Via Religion Clause, three churches in Texas have filed suit challenging FEMA policy that bars houses of worship from receiving federal disaster funding. The churches claim that the policy – which is designed to avoid violating the separation of church and state – is unconstitutional because it discriminates against religion. They rely on a recent church funding case decided by the United States Supreme Court to support their argument.
Houses of worship are not spared the devastation of natural disasters that hit our communities. In the aftermath of hurricanes like Harvey and now Irma, too many congregations will experience this stark reality and face the challenge of rebuilding. But as then-Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee Brent Walker argued in a 2013 column following Hurricane Sandy, “we do not allow taxpayer dollars to build churches; we should not allow taxpayer dollars to re-build churches.”
The current debate over whether we should provide federal financial aid for churches and other houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy is another one of these tough cases that stirs up a debate and splits the religious community.
Theological and constitutional principles ensuring religious liberty must apply and be followed in the hard cases as well as the easy cases. We enjoy unprecedented religious liberty in this country precisely because, over the past 222 years, we have stuck to our principles of voluntary, self-sufficient religion and disallowed governmental help or harm, even in the tough cases.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause simply does not permit government to provide outright grants or similar financial support to churches and other houses of worship.
Legislation introduced in 2013 (and opposed by the BJC) would have changed FEMA policy to make houses of worship eligible for direct financial assistance. It passed in the House, but did not make it out of committee in the Senate. More recently, the Supreme Court decided the case of Trinity Lutheran Church, holding that a house of worship could not be denied access to a grant for playground safety upgrades offered by the state. The plaintiff churches in this new suit argue that under Trinity Lutheran, the First Amendment prohibits FEMA from denying generally available assistance to houses of worship. You can read their complaint here.
These are indeed emotional situations. Who wouldn’t want to help any house of worship rebuild after a devastating storm? And we should help our neighbors in times of need. But that doesn’t make it a job for the government, which would risks entangling with churches in a way that our Constitution wisely forbids. Religious liberty is actually threatened, not aided, by such entanglements. They create a dependency on government and an alliance with the state, that hinder the truly free act of religious expression that is embodied in the creation of a house of worship.
As tough as it is, we should resist the urge to remove this important religious liberty safeguard.