The Senate on Monday passed a $51 billion aid package for Superstorm Sandy victims, but it remains unclear if the hundreds of damaged churches will also receive funding. Secularist groups are already raising objections to an inclusive distribution of aid.
If houses of worship are paid for the repairs by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development, that will "violate core constitutional values," says Maggie Garrett, the legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"…Government does not pay to erect, maintain or repair houses of worship. That has been our policy for more than 220 years in the United States. Religious groups are expected to pay their own way," writes Garrett on the group's website in response to last Thursday's op-ed in Wall Street Journal that favored federal aid for houses of worship.
In New York state alone, hundreds of houses of worship were damaged by Sandy, and more than 200 Catholic parishes were affected, Avi Schick, an attorney in New York, noted in his op-ed. The New York State Council of Churches reports that over a hundred of its member churches sustained damage, while the UJA-Federation reports that dozens of synagogues were affected.
Schick foresees that in the absence of clear guidance from the Obama administration, it is likely that many religious institutions will be discouraged from applying for assistance while others may have their applications denied although they are equally in need of repairs.
"The wind and waves did not discriminate when it came to destroying property," Schick quoted Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as telling him recently. "The houses of worship are the very bedrock of the neighborhoods now trying to rebuild. To not offer natural disaster assistance grants to rebuild a house of worship just doesn't make any sense."
But for secularists, houses of worship must be excluded from the aid lest it amounts to "imposing a religion tax."
"Simply put, it's not the job of the government to provide places for people to worship or to subsidize sacred spaces," says Garrett, reasoning that unlike schools, hospitals, libraries and community centers, houses of worship serve a private purpose. "They exist to promulgate specific theological points of view. Forcing taxpayers to support the construction or repair of structures that exist chiefly to promote theology is no different than imposing a religion tax on people."
Like most homeowners in America, churches and other religious institutions should simply have "a good insurance policy," Garrett suggests. "Neither President Barack Obama, nor Congress, should yield to the demands for funding of houses of worship."
Contrary to Garrett's understanding of the role of religion in people's lives, houses of worship are "an important part of that social fabric and are often where people turn for comfort and support after a disaster," Schick noted.
Even otherwise, nobody is suggesting that government should entirely rebuild sanctuaries or pay for the printing of prayer books, Schick added. "But if roofs are being repaired and other structural damage is being remediated, the religious nature of what might occur below shouldn't matter."
Based on this reasoning, a 2003 Justice Department opinion permitted the federal government to provide assistance to help restore the landmark Old North Church in Boston.
In 2010, the U.S. State Department provided millions to restore mosques in 27 different Islamic nations, Bill Donohue of Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights pointed out in a statement this month. "So is the Obama administration saying that Christian and Jewish houses of worship in the U.S. in need of restoration don't qualify for assistance but Islamic houses of worship overseas do?"
Former Senator Joseph Lieberman from Connecticut introduced an amendment to the Hurricane Sandy recovery appropriations bill to allow houses of worship to receive assistance, and the Catholic League is urging for support in Congress for the amendment.