By Ken Camp // The Baptist Standard
The following is an excerpt. Visit the Baptist Standard’s website for the full article.
WASHINGTON—The Federal Emergency Management Agency changed its policies to allow damaged churches and other houses of worship to receive disaster relief aid.
The revised policies state “private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment” compared to other not-for-profit applicants. The new policies are retroactive to disasters declared on or after Aug. 23, 2017.
However, some advocates of church/state separation insist the changes give religious groups favored status over other nonprofits and put the government in the untenable position of determining which houses of worship it will help rebuild.
Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, asserted the FEMA policy change is “problematic” and not required by the court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer.
“Our constitutional tradition has long treated churches as a special category to protect their unique status,” Hollman said. “It is not within the government’s authority to build churches, nor should the government have the power to decide which houses of worship get rebuilt after a disaster.”
Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees the FEMA policy change as a violation of the First Amendment.
“The constitution is clear. A fundamental principal of religious liberty is that the government doesn’t build churches, synagogues or other houses of worship,” Garrett said.
The FEMA assistance in question is “a narrow grant program” not available to all nonprofits, she noted.
“The policy changes give special treatment to houses of worship,” she said.
The longstanding principle that government funds should not be used to build churches, synagogues and mosques protects the rights of taxpayers not to fund houses of worship contrary to their convictions, Garrett said.
It also protects houses of worship from the entanglement that accompanies government funds, she added.