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:
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.
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.
A three-prong test has to be passed in order for government funds to be used by religious institutions, including religious educational institutions:
- The funds must be used for a secular purpose that does not promote religion;
- The effect of using the funds must not promote religion; and
- 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.
Got a legal question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com.