Written by Don Byrd
After the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) changed its policy earlier this year to make houses of worship and other religious institutions eligible for taxpayer aid to rebuild following a natural disaster, Congress has now made it official. Added on to the budget bill that passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Trump was a provision codifying that new policy into law.
Via Religion Clause, the budget bill added a new provision which states:
A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility, shall be eligible for contributions … without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility. No house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility may be excluded from receiving contributions … because leadership or membership in the organization operating the house of worship is limited to persons who share a religious faith or practice.
However, as The Atlantic’s Emma Green writes, “scholars are split” on the limits of taxpayer funds for houses of worship.This new law will likely only invite those limits to be tested.
Those who favor stricter rules separating church and state have worried that this will open the way to government money supporting explicitly religious functions. In her dissent to Trinity Lutheran, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that government money that goes toward an allegedly neutral purpose at a church is still government money supporting a church: It “cannot be confined to secular use any more than lumber used to frame the church’s walls, glass stained and used to form its windows, or nails used to build its altar,” she wrote. Arguably, her fears are actualized in the new FEMA law, which directly supports the rebuilding of church walls and altars after they’ve been destroyed in natural disasters. As Jason Lemieux, the director of government affairs at the Center for Inquiry, wrote in a statement, the new law would “require Americans to fund the repair of religious buildings with no regard for their individual religious or moral beliefs.
In other words, while FEMA’s policy on this issue is now codified in law, the controversy over disaster funding for religion may just be heating up.