Religious freedom demands that churches and other houses of worship should not have access to federal funding to repair or rebuild their structures.
It may seem heartless or unfair or even unequal, but it’s not. In fact, this is a bedrock principle, not only of American law, but also of religious freedom.
Yes, you read that correctly: Not giving federal money to churches is about protecting religious freedom.
There are two separate pushes to give access to federal disaster relief funds to churches that get hit with hurricanes. First, some Houston churches have sued FEMA to get access to those funds. Second, Congress has introduced bills (S. 1823 and H.R. 2405) to force FEMA to disgorge tax money to churches.
And, of course, President Trump has expressed his opinion through his chosen medium, Twitter:
Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2017
The storms did just not wreak physical devastation, they also unleashed untold emotional and psychological damage. Our collective American gut feeling is that we should help anyone and everyone impacted by the storm — state-church separation be damned. But it precisely because this is such an emotionally charged issue that it is wise to take a breath, slow down, and examine the enduring rationale behind the ban on using taxpayer funds to build and repair churches.
Refusing to spend taxpayer money on church building and repair fosters religious freedom.
This is a central tenet of the constitutional separation between state and church. The coercive taxing power of the government can’t oblige Muslims to bankroll temples and yeshivas, compel Jews to subsidize churches and Catholic schools or force Christians to fund mosques and madrassas. The idea is simple: Let the faithful voluntarily support their faith.
The right at issue here is not the right of churches to rebuild—nobody is stopping them—but the right of citizens not to be compelled by their government to fund a religion they do not adhere to.
This principle is vital to ensure true religious freedom. No citizen can have religious freedom when the government can force them to donate to a sect that promises them eternal torture if they happen to exercise that freedom.
The compulsory support of a religion or god that is not your own is anathema to American principles. Daniel Carroll, a Catholic representative to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland, put it best during the congressional debates on the First Amendment when he said that “the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, will little bear the gentlest touch of the governmental hand.”
In his Virginia bill for establishing religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson explained that to compel a citizen to furnish contributions of money for “the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty…”
How did we get from “sinful and tyrannical” to a lawsuit alleging this principle amounts to “discrimination against houses of worship?”
All the original states put this no-funding principle into practice at various times from 1776 up through the 1830s. These states once funded religion, but made careful decisions after lengthy debates to stop taxing citizens to support religion because doing so violated their rights. This was a hard-learned lesson over decades of living in a pluralistic America, which has only become more diverse.
This history seems distant today, but the rule was bred of centuries — millennia, actually — of oppression by religion blended with government. Thanks to the separation of state and church, we don’t have that oppressive experience. As a result, Americans have a certain amount of complacency and fail to understand that these provisions actually protect and foster religious freedom.
This historical ignorance is paired with a desperation on the part of religious bodies that comes from plummeting church attendance and accompanying donations, and now, in the wake of Irma and Harvey, brutal natural disasters. Those storms sparked what is best in us: a deep compassion for our shared humanity. But these shortsighted emotional responses will, in the long run, trespass on the religious freedom rights of all Americans. We shouldn’t fall into that trap.
By Andrew L. Seidel
Constitutional Attorney, Director of Strategic Response
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.