Disaster Relief for Churches?

Alan J. Reinach July/August 2013

The American tradition of separation of church and state was established, in part, on a pillar of “no aid” to churches, fueled by Jefferson’s rhetoric in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which said: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”

But this principle of “no aid” has morphed, over the years, due to the changing circumstances of American society, and the increasingly pervasive hand of government in every aspect of American life. Now comes a bill in Congress to include houses of worship in the FEMA aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was followed by a firestorm over whether buildings used for worship should be included in Uncle Sam’s largesse.

The “no aid” rejection of FEMA aid to churches is easy to argue: no aid means no aid. Separation of church and state means the church is on its own. The state is aloof from the business of religion. But this position woodenly ignores the values and ideas behind “no aid.”

One core premise of the First Amendment is liberty of conscience. Government abstention from involvement in religion is designed to avoid the state influencing or coercing religious beliefs and choices. Of course, this goal is not easy to achieve. Take vouchers, for example. Voucher programs for private school tuition have been upheld as constitutional, but inherently favor those schools willing to comply with state-mandated curricula and nondiscrimination requirements. Schools unwilling to meet the requirements are placed at a further economic disadvantage—not only are they more expensive than public schools, but remain among the few unsubsidized private schools. This is not what the First Amendment was designed to do.

So what about FEMA aid to rebuild houses of worship? Such aid does not discriminate among victims. The Supreme Court long ago determined that neutral principles of law must be used, for example, to resolve disputes about who properly owns church property. Neutral criteria determine whether a house of worship qualifies for aid, and how much. There is no favoritism here. To exclude houses of worship would be both punitive and discriminatory. If the government is going to provide relief, all should be eligible regardless of the purpose. It would be ironic if FEMA aid was available to strip clubs, bars, and liquor stores, but not to houses of worship.

FEMA aid to houses of worship does not require taxpayers to financially support the propagation of abhorrent religious beliefs. Such aid simply recognizes that houses of worship belong in our community, and deserve respect. After all, the foundation of religious freedom is the golden rule, as nearly universal a moral premise as ever existed. Respect for everyone’s place of worship is not unconstitutional; it is as American as pulling together to help one another in a time of crisis.

Article Author: Alan J. Reinach

Alan J. Reinach is Executive Director of the Church State Council, the religious liberty educational and advocacy arm of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, representing five western states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. His legal practice emphasizes First Amendment religious freedom cases, and religious accommodation cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related state civil rights laws. Reinach is also a Seventh-day Adventist minister who speaks regularly on religious freedom topics, and is the host of a nationally syndicated weekly radio broadcast, “Freedom’s Ring.” He is the principal author and editor of Politics and Prophecy: The Battle for Religious Liberty and the Authentic Gospel, and a frequent contributor to Libertymagazine.