In January, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) overturned a longstanding policy that will now open the door to the government using our taxpayer dollars to pay for rebuilding churches in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This decision will have a far-reaching impact that should concern not just those who work to preserve the separation of church and state, but all Americans who might be impacted by destructive storms and other such tragedies.
FEMA decided that churches can now qualify as community centers that can receive government aid in the wake of a natural disaster. This is problematic on a number of levels.
1. It further intertwines government and religion. Already Jefferson’s wall of separation is under assault, with private school vouchers, proselytizing presentations in public schools, and inappropriate influence on textbooks and curricula. By accepting government aid for church repairs and renovations, churches will be beholden to government for such assistance, undermining their ability to speak out against government abuses. By using taxpayer dollars for churches, many Americans will find their pocketbooks depleted for institutions that wouldn’t even welcome them in.
2. It will diminish the amount of money FEMA can spend on rebuilding other institutions in the wake of a catastrophic storm. FEMA doesn’t have limitless resources, so spending on a new area means spending less on existing ones. With their grand spaces, historic facades, in addition to stone and hardwood materials, churches may use up a disproportionate amount of relief funding that could be going to individual property owners, as well as schools, community centers, and other government buildings.
3. Special rights for religion inherently discriminate against the nonreligious. Even though a number of secular facilities like political, athletic, recreational, vocational, and secular nonprofit facilities remain closed to disaster relief, FEMA has seen fit to make a special exception for churches. Whereas the other facilities are open to everyone, pay taxes on their income and property, and report their finances annually to the government so that they are open for review, churches can exclude people, pay no taxes, and keep their finances a secret. So when they take government funds for rebuilding we can’t even verify that those funds weren’t redirected to public proselytizing.
4. Allowing this kind of direct funding of religion is a solution without a problem. Churches whose buildings were damaged when actually sheltering people during a storm were always able to receive government funds to refurbish their structures. What’s new is that churches that did not provide assistance to those suffering from storms will now be able to receive government funds to rebuild structures destroyed by the storm. So, if we’re not giving the money to churches because of their relief efforts, why are we giving it to them?
5. Political grandstanding is driving this change. It’s not happening because there’s a desperate need to fund churches in order to ensure robust relief efforts, but it does make politicians look good to bolster churches, and anything that strikes of merging church and state is a boost to politicians like President Trump and his cronies on the Far Right. The more we allow for government regulations to be decided on political and religious grounds instead of a fact-based analysis of current community needs and compliance with constitutional principles, the more divided our country becomes.
This decision by FEMA harms communities affected by natural disasters by decreasing the amount of money that will go to buildings dedicated to helping all members of that community in favor of supporting sectarian houses of worship that only appeal to certain members of the community. Such a decision is morally problematic, constitutionally questionable, and undermines key American values. It should be reversed as soon as possible.