Tuesday, February 19, 2013
In House Approves Storm Aid for Religious Institutions, the New York Times reports that the United States House of Representatives, by a vote of 354 to 72, has passed a bill approving “the use of federal money to rebuild churches and synagogues damaged by Hurricane Sandy, despite concern that such aid could violate the doctrine of separation of church and state.” The bill now awaits consideration in the Senate. According to the story, Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has expressed support for the bill and “was working to secure its passage in the Senate.” Observing that FEMA has generally refused to grant federal relief for rebuilding the physical facilities of houses of worship following natural disasters, the Times reports that FEMA lawyers raised numerous objections to the bill as a significant departure from current law.
But is the bill constitutional? Opinions vary (imagine that!), says the story:
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an advocacy group, said the bill was constitutional under Supreme Court precedents that allow houses of worship to receive “generally available benefits” like police and fire protection and sewer connections.
But Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said: “This bill would direct federal taxpayer dollars to the reconstruction of houses of worship. The idea that taxpayer money can be used to build a religious sanctuary or an altar has consistently been held unconstitutional.”
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, saying it was a bedrock principle of constitutional law that “taxpayer funds cannot go to construct, rebuild or repair buildings used for religious activities.”
One can ironically frame the constitutional issue raised by the bill in the language of contract law: may the federal government provide financial aid to religious organizations for an act of God?