Despite the lackluster quality of the American educational system today, I still expect most people to know the First Amendment. After all, it’s talked about an awful lot. The right to free speech is a big deal. But, apparently, the House of Representatives forgot about the other half of it: the separation of church and state.
Despite the lackluster quality of the American educational system today, I still expect most people to know the First Amendment. After all, it’s talked about an awful lot. The right to free speech is a big deal.
But, apparently, the House of Representatives forgot about the other half of it: the separation of church and state.
Congratulations, taxpayers! You might become the source of funding for millions of dollars in church repairs on the hurricane-ravaged East Coast!
It began when the Federal Emergency Management Agency started looking at Sandy victims and considering where aid was needed. Obviously, Hurricane Sandy hit a large area, and thousands of families and businesses are struggling to recover.
FEMA tried to follow the usual pattern of things: Help the people, help the people helping the people and lay the foundations for rebuilding. A number of nonprofits were slated to receive federal aid as they assisted people with recovery efforts.
And this is when churches raised a fuss. Various houses of worship started pleading for federal aid despite FEMA’s clear rules against giving aid to religious institutions. It’s a federal agency, after all; it can’t violate the separation of church and state.
Except now the House has voted in favor of conveniently ignoring said amendment and awarding aid to houses
Perhaps the House should’ve consulted the Constitution, or Thomas Jefferson’s statement regarding the “wall of separation between church and state,” or any of the various Supreme Court rulings in which Jefferson’s phrase is considered “almost as an authoritative declaration” of the First Amendment’s purpose (see Reynolds v. United States, 1879).
Strictly on a constitutional basis, the bill shouldn’t have been passed.
Granted, taxpayers can hardly choose where their money goes, but this is ridiculous. The separation of church and state exists to keep taxpayers from funding a religion they don’t ascribe to. It’s an infringement of civil liberty to use taxes to aid houses of worship. Period.
It’s precisely for this reason that the American Civil Liberties Union advocated a “no” vote on this bill.
Additionally, churches are tax-exempt. They give nothing to FEMA or other federal agencies. To request monetary aid from the government when they pay nothing is outrageous.
Bill sponsor Chris Smith, R-N.J., couched the passage of the bill in “fairness” to the services churches often offer: food and shelter for the displaced, hungry or homeless. “Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory and may even suggest hostility to religion,” Smith said.
You know what else is patently unfair? Violating the First Amendment and giving taxpayer money to religious institutions.
There are certainly arguments to be made for giving aid to churches. Smith touched on one when discussing why denying churches federal aid was unfair—the services churches sometimes offer after a disaster.
It’s true that many churches may have provided food and shelter to Sandy victims. And to be fair, secular nonprofits qualify for federal aid, despite their tax-exempt status. However, it’s expected of secular nonprofits to help victims of disasters, and they keep careful records of where their funding goes. Churches offer aid at their discretion, and their bookkeeping is often less than stellar.
Additionally, churches receive donations from their members in the form of tithes. If members and grateful community citizens are unable to give enough to support their church, the burden of responsibility to make up the difference shouldn’t fall on the government and on the taxpayer in turn.
This isn’t the first time that FEMA’s policy was overruled; following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress mandated that FEMA provide aid to damaged churches. In 2002, it did the same following an earthquake in Seattle. Apparently, our legislative body is determined to force FEMA into overstepping the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Precedent, however, doesn’t warrant giving in and continually violating what’s arguably the most important part of the Constitution—the foundation upon which our country was built.
Plus, there are no guarantees that there will be any sort of auditing or accountability for what these churches do with the money.
It’s also difficult to determine whether a church actually provided relief or aid for its community, as churches tend not to keep explicit records of such things. In the absence of audits or evidence, FEMA will simply have to award churches federal aid regardless.
I understand why the bill was passed, and I know it’d be difficult for churches to rebuild and repair without some form of assistance. But religious institutions don’t pay taxes, and as the First Amendment explicitly states, the government can’t interfere with religion: It’s unfair, unconstitutional and unaccountable. Under no circumstances should it be signed into law.