Using Tax Money to Rebuild Churches

On July 10, two senators introduced Senate Bill 1274, which would add religious buildings to the list of nonprofit facilities eligible to receive federal disaster relief aid after catastrophic events like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. The Senate bill and its House counterpart, H. R. 592, address aid to nonprofit facilities damaged in Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and afterward.

The Secular Coalition of America opposes the bill because tax dollars would directly fund the repair or replacement of damaged and destroyed churches, synagogues, and mosques, not to mention other nonprofit organizations.

SCA is encouraging a campaign to remind our Senators that one of the longest standing principles of our nation is that no citizen should be required to fund any religions with which they disagree, and not to permit  taxpayer money to be used to repair or rebuild churches destroyed in natural disasters.

I’m usually right on board with the Secular Coalition of America in anything it does, but this brought me up short.

No, I don’t want my tax dollars to build new churches, fund their missionary programs, or finance a church-supported school’s science-denying science curriculum. It makes me sick that religious institutions get a pass when April 15 rolls around. Frankly, I think all nonprofits ought to pay taxes. If their profits are reinvested for public benefit, or set aside in specific funds intended for that purpose, then that should be credited to them. But should churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues be treated differently than any other nonprofit when they are hit by a natural calamity?

I looked into the status quo, without the passage of this Senate bill.

FEMA’s current policy addressed aid to individuals and their households as well as to government facilities. It does not permit disaster assistance to nonprofits unless they provide “essential services to the general public customarily provided by the government.” Whether nonprofit or for-profit, facilities used primarily for religious, political, athletic, recreational, or vocational purposes don’t qualify for FEMA funds. Churches, the DNC headquarters, the Superdome, Disney World, and Joe’s Body Shop don’t get government money. They are expected to be adequately insured.

The new law would allow virtually any nonprofit organization to benefit, though, which may indeed be desirable when we consider that the gift shop at Hurricane River Cave in the Ozarks (one of the coolest caves I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit) might be taken out when the next big New Madrid quake hits, as might the collection of historical buildings at the Scott Plantation Settlement.

On the other hand, it would also, in this time of high budget deficits and sequestration, open the FEMA coffers to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. It does this by removing the requirement that, in order to receive FEMA funds, the organization provide a service that would otherwise be an essential government service. Cool gift shop or not, amazing caverns, even if operated by nonprofit organizations, do not supply an essential governmental service. Nor do historic preserves of bygone eras.

Having a church building is definitely not an essential governmental service.

And, as the SCA points out in its letter to Senators, two-thirds of the American population doesn’t use churches. Nonbelievers and the nonreligious constitute 20% of the American population, and that number is growing. And by expanding FEMA’s coverage in this era of sequestration, 2.3 million nonprofit organizations would immediately become eligible for FEMA funds in the event of a natural disaster. (Only 1.6 million are registered with the IRS. The others haven’t filed their forms to obtain official approval of their nonprofit status.)

“While the services of these nonprofits may provide great benefit to the general public, federal funds should not be diverted away from essential governmental programs toward nonprofits with access to a charitable and generous base of donors nationwide and around the globe,” says the SCA. Being on the boards of a few nonprofits that are always struggling for money, I kind of take issue with the “generous base” description, but I can’t help but acknowledge the definite difference between “great benefit” and “essential service.”

Currently, FEMA funds can go to any

private nonprofit educational, utility, irrigation, emergency, medical, rehabilitational, and temporary or permanent custodial care facilities (including those for the aged and disabled) and facilities on Indian reservations…

[as well as any] [p]rivate nonprofit facility that provides essential services of a governmental nature to the general public, (including museums, zoos, performing arts facilities, community arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops, and facilities that provide health and safety services of a governmental nature)…

Language proposed by the Senate bill and the House resolution would add community centers and houses of worship to the list.

To be fair, the bill contains a restriction for religious facilities that does not apply to the other nonprofits. Taxpayer-funded disaster relief would be allowed to religious institutions only for the actual buildings damaged. Its language is pretty specific:

In spaces used primarily for religious worship services, contributions…shall only be used to cover the costs of purchasing or replacing, without limitation, the building structure, building enclosure components, building envelope, vertical and horizontal circulation, physical plant support spaces, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems (including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and fire and life safety systems), and related site improvements.

The SCA sent a letter to all Senators about this bill. It cited two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Tilton v. Richardson and Hunt v. McNair, to support its position.

A three-prong test has to be passed in order for government funds to be used by religious institutions, including religious educational institutions:

  1. The funds must be used for a secular purpose that does not promote religion;
  2. The effect of using the funds must not promote religion; and
  3. Enforcement of the secular purpose should not unnecessarily entangle church and state.

In the Tilton case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that grants for non-religious school facilities did not violate the Establishment Clause because the purpose and effect of the Act that authorized the grants was not to aid religious institutions but to aid education generally. The students affected by the act were secondary students, who the Court determined to be less susceptible to religious indoctrination that elementary school students. Significantly, though, the decision in the Tilton case did not address whether granting schools affiliated with a particular religious sect would enable those schools to further their religious instruction. It did, however, determine that taxpayers were not themselves harmed if their ability to practice their own religion remained untouched.

The Hunt case came out of South Carolina, and addressed whether revenue bonds intended for capital improvements at institutions of higher education could be used by sectarian colleges. Because higher education is a secular purpose, and constructing buildings to house educational facilities does not promote religion, and because at the college level, religious indoctrination is not as significant as it is in elementary schools.

It would seem that an actual church is not a school, though, and its primary purpose is to promote religion. While Tilton and Hunt both seem to say that FEMA funds can be used to rebuild the local Catholic High School, there does not seem to be any justification, based on the Supreme Court’s three-prong test, to use taxpayer funds to rebuild a church, even if the rebuilding is limited to the facility alone and not to providing the pews within it.

An ordinary nonprofit organization exists for the public benefit, and the public does indeed benefit from its existence. These facilities all provide valuable community services. But it can be argued that churches do, too. They are community centers, even though they serve a much smaller slice of the population. Then again, rehabilitation centers and senior citizen centers only serve a portion of the community, too.

While we as secularists may disagree vehemently with the mission of religions in general, are we really any differently situated than, say, someone who believes zoos to be cruel? The argument feels somewhat like saying that if our trashy neighbors’ home got washed away during the flood or flattened by a tornado, they be denied emergency relief to rebuild just because we don’t like them.

I hate feeling mean-spirited. It puts me in a bad mood.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed suit to do away with the favored tax status of churches, and to have them treated like all other nonprofits. If churches want to be nonprofit organizations, they should have to file the expensive tax form that goes along with being awarded that status. If they want to endorse specific candidates or political parties, they should lose their 501(c)(3) and have to satisfy themselves with 501(c)(4), which has stricter reporting requirements. I firmly stand with FFRF on this, as, I suspect, do many readers of this post.

But should a church be treated differently when it comes to disaster relief just because it is a church?

As long as the damaged church isn’t violating its tax-free status by politicking, do you see a problem with treating it like any other nonprofit, and allowing the use of taxpayer funds for it to rebuild after a disaster?

And what about extending FEMA coverage to all nonprofits? It is a noble intent, for sure. But is it practical, given our current economic issues? Why should nonprofits be treated differently than Joe’s Body Shop when it comes to disaster relief? I would think that helping businesses recover from disaster would be a pretty noble investment, too.

I’m very interested in hearing what you have to say, and whether you feel strongly enough about this issue to contact your Senator.



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About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at

  • vermontster

    I’m on board with maintaining the status quo on this, I have been involved with the PA program in the past, and one of the applicants I had do deal with was a christian homeless shelter. Having them be an approved applicant rubbed me the wrong way since while they provide a needed service, and are indeed the only homeless shelter in the area, their services come with some rather strong strings attached. They see it not as just to care for the people, but to also preach to those who stay at the shelter. I’m not sure if they deny entry to atheists or non-christians, or if they just preach at them if they do give them accommodation.

    • Silent Service

      I would agree, except that in an actual disaster there isn’t much time to preach in the immediate aftermath. People are too busy picking up the pieces. Yes, later on the proselytizing comes back, but in the aftermath of a major disaster people are focused on recovery and rescue. You have a valid point though, and not one that can be dismissed easily.

      • Cake

        I don’t think this bill has anything to do with the “immediate aftermath” but instead the rebuilding phase.

        • Silent Service

          It does have to do with rebuilding essential services as part of the recovery though. If we are going to treat one charity service as essential we must treat all similar charities equally. What is done with those structures later on isn’t the driving issue. A secular homeless center that promotes education as a path to getting back on your feet is pushing an ideology just as much as a religiously sponsored one. The fact that we agree with the secular center’s ideology does not grant us greater access.

          • Jasper

            1) Fine – as long as the churches are actually required to demonstrate that they’re actually charities, and they aren’t just automatically granted tax-exempt status.

            2) The establishment clause isn’t about ideology. It’s about religion. Of course secular ideologies are okay… they’re okay by definition. Keep in mind that secular != anti-religion

          • Silent Service

            For #1, that’s fine. I think all charities should be required to prove themselves. Most are unfortunately just money making systems and should be denied. This would include any church that was primarily a money machine and would likely eliminate most churches that would be a problem in the area of proselytizing using government funds. For #2, the establishment clause protects religions from discrimination by requiring the government to remain neutral in its interactions with religious institutions. That does not mean that government funding cannot go to religious institutions, only that government funding cannot be used to support or oppose religion (and its institutions) as the Government cannot endorse a religion. Religious does not equal anti-secular just as secular does not equal anti-religious. If the government gives relief funds to all charities except religious charities then the government is opposing, or discriminating against, religion and that violates the First Amendment.

            You are right that the establishment clause is not about ideology. It is about protecting the religious freedom of all people from government intrusion by limiting government-religion interaction. This includes the right to be non-religious as well as all religions. This does not prevent the government from providing relief to a religious institution as long as that relief is being provided to all similar institution regardless of their being religious or not and in a manner that is fair and equitable while not endorsing a specific religious institution or view. It is a very fine line to have to balance on, but it is a very important one that we must remain balanced on.

          • Jasper

            I think we’re basically on the same page

          • tm17

            “If the government gives relief funds to all charities except religious
            charities then the government is opposing, or discriminating against,
            religion and that violates the First Amendment.”

            Wrong. That is failed logic. There is nothing discriminatory about NOT funding religious organizations.

      • tm17

        If the proselytizing is going to come back after these houses of worship are rebuilt, they the tax payers shouldn’t be footing the bill to rebuild them in the first place.

  • Silent Service

    Like you JT, I’m a bit conflicted here. If we give disaster relief to people we should do so equally. Locking out churches from aid for me creates an issue. We have created a law specifically designed to block religion from receiving treatment equal to other non-profits. As we are not supposed to create laws that promote or restrict religion unduly this does not seem appropriate to me. If we are supposed to treat religious institutions like any other equivalent secular institution in regards to the law then if we give financial support to rebuild secular institutions we must treat religious institutions with the same missions equally.

    At the same time, such facilities serve a primary purpose to support their religion but they are also the primary community center and distributor of charity in small communities during a disaster. Locking them out from recovery funds does not seem to match the spirit of the law regarding separation of church and state. And yet, once that door is cracked open even a fraction it will never be closed.

    • EmpiricalPierce

      I’d be more open to nonprofit churches receiving disaster relief if they weren’t granted automatic 501(c)(3) status and did not get exemption from filing 990 forms. If churches had to prove they deserve nonprofit status like every other nonprofit, I suspect there would be far fewer nonprofit churches.

      At the very least it would knock out Scientology and prosperity churches.

      • Silent Service

        On this, I agree 100%. No shortcuts. There never should have been any in the first place.

    • tm17

      Silent Service – There is nothing to be conflicted about. Churches exist to save souls. The government shouldn’t be paying to rebuild them. End of story.

  • Highlander

    As long as they aren’t paying taxes, they aren’t entitled to any public assistance. They get their disaster relief already in the form of their tax exempt status. Let their god protect them from the disasters it sends.

    • Ubi Dubium

      Or let them use that money that they didn’t pay in taxes to buy some disaster insurance on their buildings.

    • Stev84

      It’s like insurance. If you don’t pay into the system, you don’t get anything out of it.

    • Silent Service

      Do you hold this view of all charity services and tax exempt organizations or only religious ones? If you hold it for all such services and organizations I agree. As long as they are treated equally it seems appropriate to me.

      • Highlander

        An excellent question, and one I hadn’t considered. Would I feel the same if, say, the Doctors Without Borders U.S. headquarters in New York had been damaged by hurricane Sandy? I guess I would have to agree with EmpiricalPierce above when he says, “I’d be more open to nonprofit churches receiving disaster relief if they weren’t granted automatic 501(c)(3) status and did not get exemption from filing 990 forms.” If churches actually were treated equally from the get go then they would deserve public assistance. However, they aren’t, they don’t have to prove their activites have public benefit like other charities such as Doctors Without Borders, and until they do they should be buying insurance with the procedes of their tax free status.

        • Zugswang

          Precisely this. I would not want tax dollars to go towards, for example, rebuilding the homes of the likes of Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar if they were destroyed in a natural disaster, and I can absolutely see many someones exploiting the legislation in this fashion. That’s having your cake and eating it, and then finishing it all off with other peoples’ cake, too.

          • Silent Service

            I believe that I agreed with that point earlier. I still do. If religious charities want government support in a disaster they have to prove that they are primarily functioning as a charity, and not a church. That should also solve the problem of institutions that are primarily a church from receiving aid. That doesn’t mean that it will always solve such problems. People cheat on the rules far too often, and religious people are far too prone to believing that their end justifies their actions. That is why there would need to be very strict rules in this area and they would have to be carefully enforced. Never a fun or easy task.

      • tm17

        Silent Service – You come across as a religious troll working to minimize opposition to legislation that benefits your interests. Are you a paid lobbyist? Or, are you doing this as a matter of faith?

        • Silent Service

          I am neither a religious member or a lobbyist. I simply put forth my argument and what do I get, rude accusation because I disagree with your possition. That pretty much shows that I have no need of taking your opinion seriously in any way. At least everybody else is presenting an actual argument for thier possition and making this a decent discussion.

          • tm17

            My apologies. My comment wasn’t meant so much as an ad hominem attack but as a means to call you out on erroneous info you’ve provided in your comments on this issue. I am well versed on this particular bill as well as the religious privileging behind it. Your comments seem to lack a full understanding of the web of laws that allow religious organizations to avoid taxation that is required of secular organizations.

            In one of your comments to this article, you state “Religious institutions must be treated exactly like any equivalent non-religious institution.” Yet, to me, your other comments indicate no understanding of how this is precisely NOT the case. Religious organizations have numerous laws written to favor them exclusively.

            In fact, because of the tax exemptions that are available to ONLY religious organizations, they are saving an estimated $71 billion annually. This is precisely why religious organizations are able to pressure legislators and inject their ideologies into our laws. They have well moneyed lobbying organizations at the national, state, county and city levels.

            The Stafford Act already provides disaster relief for certain classes of religious charities. These new bills would provide disaster relief for buildings used exclusively for worship. That is crossing a line. These bills should not pass.

            I ask that you spend some time reading the “Issues” link at Then explore other sections of the site. If you’re interested in the separation of church & state, you can register your email address with them so as to stay better informed about related issues.

          • Silent Service

            The proposed bill does have limits placed on it. We can certainly debate if those limits are extensive enough. I would be inclined to say that they are not (as the bill is currently written), but that the principal of equal treatment itself is sound. As I have noted in reply to other post I agree that any religious charity or institution should be required to go through the same application process as all other charities in order to meet that equal treatment requirement. I’m also sure that such an amendment, if proposed, would send some religious leaders into a hilarious fit.

            If the intent is to debate what limits and regulations need to be in place to prevent abuse of government funds in support of religious institutions, that is to me a more specific topic than simply whether the government can fund rebuilding efforts, including rebuilding churches that act as charities after a disaster.

            Everybody keeps saying that the churches should spend their own money on insurance. Well, I can easily say that all such institutions should have insurance as an operating expense. And in fact, they should. That would seem to me to be a pretty good requirement that the government should place on such institutions, religious or not. And also likely to cause fits among religious leaders. Any government aid should only be allowed for damage above and beyond what is normally expected in major disasters.; the kind of damage not normally covered by insurance. And any institution that does not have proper insurance to cover more basic requirements should be required to pay appropriate penalties when the government has to step in and help them recover.

            The more we go over this, the more complex it sounds not just for religious charities and institutions, but for any and all such institutions. Very likely a complete grounds up study is needed to see what types of institutions and charities have serious problems recovering after a major disaster of some kind to figure out who actually needs help. Maybe we’ll find out that this is another boondoggle and maybe we won’t. I don’t know. What I do know is that the immediate reaction by too many of us is to scream Church and State separation! I think a better reaction would be to immediately ask the proposers of this bill how they feel about rebuilding Islamic charities? Then we’d get to see if they are sincerely trying to create a helpful level playing field or trying to slip another religious privilege into law. I would hope for the former, especially since I’ve spent a week arguing for fair treatment. I am willing to concede that I’m wrong if the bill’s proposers freak out about the idea of rebuilding an Islamic charity.

  • Ryan Hite

    I think the government should help if the church is a historic structure, but the modern megachurches can do it themselves. They build giant buildings for them every day.

  • GBJames

    I’m not conflicted at all. Religious institutions should not be getting public funds. Period. It has nothing to do with being non-profit. It has nothing to with whether the believers want to build a new worshiping hut or repair one damaged by lightening. It has to do with religion and government has no place funding the places. Why is this not a no-brainer?

    • Silent Service

      Because it is not the no-brainer you think it is. Religious institutions must be treated exactly like any equivalent non-religious institution or the Government has taken a stand for or against them. Since the separation of Church and State pretty much mandates that the Government neither support nor oppose religion on philosophical grounds we cannot exclude religious institution or facilities that have similar functions to secular institutions and facilities or the Government is taking a stand; thus violating the First Amendment.

      Laws cannot be written specifically to support religion, but they cannot be specifically written to exclude religion either. Obviously there must be very strict oversight when government law has an effect on religious institutions, but that is the price of being truly free to believe what we want as individuals. The balancing act required is a tough one, but maintaining it disarms religious claims of persecution.

      • GBJames

        I fail to understand how passing legislation specifically to give money to religious institutions doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the constitution.

        Here we have institutions that avoid paying taxes because of the wall of separation but seek public funding for construction projects. There is no balancing act needed. Religion and government don’t mix.

        • Silent Service

          Simple. The bill is not about giving privilege to a religious institution. It is about treating a religious institution that is a charity as any other charity. Otherwise it is a law designed to favor non-religion over religion. it is just as unlawful to place non-religious institutions above religious ones as it is to place religious institutions above non-religious ones.

          “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…” In the strictest terms, making laws that prohibit funding religious institutions are laws respecting an establishment of religion. So are laws specifically intent on funding a religion. However, this law is not about funding a religion. It is about funding recovery and rebuilding efforts for charity organizations. There are clauses to specifically make sure that we do not fund religious activity directly, but that is all you can legally do regarding religion. it is all about the Government remaining neutral with respect to religious institutions.

          • GBJames

            Show me the church that doesn’t think it is a charity.

            It makes no sense to start paying for the construction of churches because they might have a soup kitchen in their basements from time to time. Sure, pay for the soup, assuming it isn’t delivered with a side helping of Jesus saves. But funding building construction because churches are “charities”? Gimme a break. Why not pay for services, too? After all, government pays for public presentations on other subjects at libraries and museums.

            “Favoring non-religion over religion” is a red herring. The point is that government has no role in religion. And that includes payments for church construction.

  • Rob McClain

    Let Jesus rebuild their churches; let Jesus come and put out their fires and respond to calls for an ambulance as well.

    Sick to death of religion getting double benefits while businesses struggle to survive.

  • tm17

    I like the meme that asks the question, “If God caused these natural disasters, shouldn’t we be sending the repair bills to the local churches, mosques & synagogues?”

  • tm17

    Response from Senator Tom Carper, chair of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:
    July 30, 2013

    Dear Mr. XXXXXXXXXX:

    Thank you for contacting me with your concerns about legislation that would extend the eligibility of disaster relief assistance to certain private nonprofit facilities, including houses of worship. I appreciate hearing from you on this important matter, and I agree with the points you raise.

    As you know, on July 10, 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced S. 1274, a bill that would make houses of worship eligible for disaster assistance, even if they do not provide essential governmental services. A similar bill, H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 introduced by Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ) was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 13, 2013. Like S. 1274, this legislation has been referred to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which I chair, for further review.

    Given the importance and complexity of this issue, and my own role as chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, I directed members of my committee’s staff to review the issue very closely. They have met with representatives from both organizations supporting the legislation as well as those opposed to the measure. They have also reviewed relevant court cases and spoken with a number of law professors who specialize in church-state issues. Moreover, I have personally discussed this matter at length with several prominent members of the bar in Delaware to ensure its due consideration.

    In the weeks since S. 1274′s introduction, I have heard from a number of Americans who, like you, have raised constitutional concerns with this legislation. As you may know, religious institutions, like other nonprofit organizations, are eligible for federal disaster assistance today for their facilities that provide essential services of a governmental nature—such as parochial schools and soup kitchens—and to Small Business Administration disaster loans. But federal disaster assistance is not available for facilities that are primarily used for religious worship. It should be noted that I believe that religious institutions are important members of communities, both in Delaware and throughout the country, and they should receive the support they are entitled to under current law. With regard to S. 1274, however, based on my office’s analysis of Supreme Court and lower court precedents, as well as their conversations with legal experts and my own, I have serious reservations about the constitutionality of the bill.

    Thank you for contacting me about this legislation, and rest assured I will keep your thoughts in mind. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future about this or other issues of importance to you.

    With best personal regards, I am

    Tom Carper
    United States Senator