Religious Earmarks

An article in the New York Times this week, “Religious Groups Reap Federal Aid for Pet Projects“, gives some troubling details about the growing trend of religious groups seeking – and receiving – no-strings-attached federal grants disbursed by a direct act of Congress, usually called “earmarks”, to fund their pet projects. Sometimes these grants are for secular purposes, such as ministries that fund job training programs or religious colleges studying how best to reduce gang violence. However, on other occasions, the secular purpose is far more questionable: transferring public land to a church that wants to expand its parking lot, or funding faith-based abstinence programs such as the Silver Ring Thing (which is really just a program of evangelical Christian proselytism in thin disguise). The Times has a full list of religious earmarks for the past several Congresses.

I think earmarks in general are a bad idea – they provide far too much opportunity for kickbacks, corruption and wasteful pork spending intended to buy constituents’ votes. In my opinion, the government should not be allowed to directly distribute tax money to any private group, except through a process of open and competitive bidding that gives all qualified applicants a chance. However, earmarks to religious groups pose an even more serious constitutional problem. It is the principle that matters: even if the government is only giving a small amount of money for the support of religion, that is still a violation of the First Amendment. As James Madison put it in his famous 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments:

Who does not see that the same authority… which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

I’m not saying that society should never aid religiously affiliated organizations in any way at all. I do not oppose government grants to religious organizations for secular purposes, so long as those groups are accountable for results obtained and obtain the money through a fair and competitive process that also allows secular groups to compete. And it goes without saying that no government money should ever be used for activities that promote religion, coerce participants to convert, or discriminate on the basis of belief. Groups that are pervasively and inescapably theistic, and cannot or will not separate their religious aims from their secular ones, should not be eligible.

Not only do goverment handouts to religion endanger our society’s official religious neutrality, they are a bad idea for churches as well. A church that becomes dependent on government money has little incentive to solicit the voluntary contributions that are its true livelihood, and if the spigot of public dollars ever shuts off, that luckless church may have forgotten how to sustain itself and could end up falling apart. Even if this does not happen, accepting government money almost inevitably fosters a sense of dependence on, and identification with, the source of that money. In the end, that church may become less a religious organization than a political one, exchanging its principles for material benefit. To their credit, there are many clergy members who recognize this and preach against accepting government handouts (though unfortunately, when public money is made available, some of those very clergy are among those rushing to get it – Pat Robertson being a notable example).

In a society as religious as ours, some degree of government patronage to religion is a foregone conclusion. Theistic voters wield far too much influence for politicians not to try to buy them, and many elected officials are themselves religious believers who value aiding their ideological allies more than they value the separation of church and state. Defenders of the First Amendment can and should bring legal action wherever appropriate to compel this to cease, but trying to stop all religious earmarks in this way would be like trying to plug all the holes in a leaky dike. In the short term we should rely on the Constitution, but in the long term, our strategy should be aimed at decreasing the numbers and influence of religion in general, so that buying the believers off becomes less of a feasible electoral strategy.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Darren

    I disagree somewhat with your last paragraph, at least to the extent that government patronage is acceptable, or at least overlooked. I fail to see why churches cannot be treated as a private enterprise in all respects, as you mentioned in “Tax the Churches”. Let them live or die on their own merits; if they want to undertake a social project, raise the funds themselves. There is no good reason for a government to hand money to a church.

  • Darren

    I disagree somewhat with your last paragraph, at least to the extent that government patronage is acceptable, or at least overlooked. I fail to see why churches cannot be treated as a private enterprise in all respects, as you mentioned in “Tax the Churches”. Let them live or die on their own merits; if they want to undertake a social project, raise the funds themselves. There is no good reason for a government to hand money to a church.

  • Vicki Baker

    This is a very important topic. I still don’t really understand how Bush’s faith based initiative program has changed the landscape of NGO funding. I know that before, church groups could apply for grants subject to the same rules as secular groups. I think that now they are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion both in hiring practices and who they serve. (I’m pretty sure about hiring, less sure about clients – I guess it depends on what the grant is for) That seems blatantly unconstitutional. Also, it has never seemed fair that Churches don’t have to pay into Social Security. I remember when I worked for an organization that helped immigrants and refufees, being quite shocked that a gentleman who had been laid off from his job as a church caretaker was not eligible for unemployment because the church did not pay the social security tax.

  • Vicki Baker

    This is a very important topic. I still don’t really understand how Bush’s faith based initiative program has changed the landscape of NGO funding. I know that before, church groups could apply for grants subject to the same rules as secular groups. I think that now they are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion both in hiring practices and who they serve. (I’m pretty sure about hiring, less sure about clients – I guess it depends on what the grant is for) That seems blatantly unconstitutional. Also, it has never seemed fair that Churches don’t have to pay into Social Security. I remember when I worked for an organization that helped immigrants and refufees, being quite shocked that a gentleman who had been laid off from his job as a church caretaker was not eligible for unemployment because the church did not pay the social security tax.

  • Polly

    I don’t like government handouts to private organizations, either. But, if the government is going to hand money out to secular charities and programs, then it would be hypocrisy on par with discrimination, not to treat religious charities the same to the extent that they are only serving the same secular purposes. But, money is money. A few thousand for helping the poor means a few thousand freed up elsewhere to print religious tracks or but aritime or whatever.
    There has to be a strict budgeting and accounting to make sure that the moey isn’t subsidizing religion from the backdoor.

  • Polly

    I don’t like government handouts to private organizations, either. But, if the government is going to hand money out to secular charities and programs, then it would be hypocrisy on par with discrimination, not to treat religious charities the same to the extent that they are only serving the same secular purposes. But, money is money. A few thousand for helping the poor means a few thousand freed up elsewhere to print religious tracks or but aritime or whatever.
    There has to be a strict budgeting and accounting to make sure that the moey isn’t subsidizing religion from the backdoor.

  • lpetrich

    Seems like religious pork barrel to me.

    And a kind of pork barrel that the Religious Right absolutely adores.

  • OMGF

    It’s not enough to simply hold them accountable for results, but they should be audited as well and held to strict accounting as Polly said. We know that certain church groups go to poor areas around the country to hand out food (good) and also to proselytize (bad). Without strict accounting, these groups could very easily use the governments dime to do their proselytizing, or at least use the gov’s dime to do everything but the proselytizing. The problem with the latter, however, is that the gov. money is what enables them to carry out their religious purposes.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    A church that becomes dependent on government money has little incentive to solicit the voluntary contributions that are its true livelihood, and if the spigot of public dollars ever shuts off, that luckless church may have forgotten how to sustain itself and could end up falling apart.

    Oh geeze, what a horrible thing that would be, huh?

    Friends from Europe have told me that the number 1 thing churches should do if they want to collapse demographically and become a tiny, fringe element in culture is this: Become really, really tightly associated with the government. European secularism has EVERTHING to do with centuries (nay, millenia) of hand-in-glove involvement of church and state with each other.

    Who knows? In 500 years, the Middle East may be as secular as anything.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com/ Kullervo

    IIRC You can sue as an injured taxpayer for tax money spent on establishing religion, but not for more non-pecunary crap like donations of land. You’d have to show an actual particularized injury beyond the stigmatic or general indignance in order to have stabding to sue.


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