Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Government Help Rebuilding Religious Facilities

The American Atheist organization is opposing S 1765 on the basis that it contains a provision for rebuilding churches and other religious facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The organization thinks that it is wrong for the government to pay for the construction of churches -- that it violates the Constitutional separation between church and state.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to insert my usual disclaimer. This blog is concerned with ethics, not Constitutional law. Any Constitution can allow immoral and unjust laws -- such as slavery before 1865.

There is a moral argument for the separation of church and state that transcends any constitutional argument. This means, even if the constitutional prohibition against blending the two, there is a moral objection.

The moral principle at stake here is that no citizen should be required to fund a church that he does not belong to and does not support. Each religion should stand depend solely on the support of those who voluntarily elect to support it, and no church should be permitted to step outside that circle and compel support from those who are not members.

Each church, or each religion, may certainly attempt to persuade others to become members. If a religion cannot gain enough voluntary followers to do what it wants, it has no right to turn to the Government and say, "Make him pay!"

Accordingly, the moral principle of separation of church and state says that I shall not prohibit you from building a temple on your property if you wish to do so; you shall not require me to pay for its construction.

Katrina Damage

So, why is it that repairing damage done by Hurricane Katrina does not violate this principle?

The provision of S 1765 under consideration says this:

SEC. 204. DISASTER RELIEF EQUITY: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the religious status of a private nonprofit facility located in an area in which a major disaster relating to Hurricane Katrina was declared by the President under section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency 12 Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5170), or of the owner or operator of such a facility, shall not preclude the facility from being eligible to receive Federal assistance for use in repairing, restoring, reconstructing, or replacing the facility following damage or destruction of the facility as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

The relevant part of Title 42 mentioned above allows the President to make contributions “(2) to a person who owns or operates a private nonprofit facility damaged or destroyed by a major disaster for the repair, restoration, reconstruction, or replacement of such facility and for associated expenses incurred by such person.”

This provision does not set aside money specifically for the purpose of aiding religious organizations. Rather, it says that religious organizations, as nonprofit organizations, should obtain exactly the same benefits available to other nonprofit organizations -- no more and no less.

Flood Insurance

Flood insurance is issued by the federal government. People do not buy flood insurance for their homes primarily from private businesses; they buy it from the federal government. In case of a flood -- a serious flood such as when a river overflows its banks -- the federal government pays the costs.

We do not prohibit religious facilities from purchasing flood insurance. In spite of the fact that the money comes from the federal government and goes to a religious institution, this does not violate the separation of church and state – as long as the religious institution is treated like any other customer.

In fact, the moral requirement to separate church and state would be violated if the federal government were compelled to deny flood insurance for a facility that would otherwise qualify, if it were not a religious institution. This type of restriction puts religious institutions at an unfair disadvantage.

We have to ask the same question of those who suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina. Why put that special advantage whereby they cannot obtain the benefits that every other nonprofit organization may obtain? The only answer is, "Because they are religious," as if that provides a legitimate ground for exclusion.

Equal Consideration

Equal consideration, in this case, means that religious institutions have to fulfill the same limits and criteria as non-religious non-profit organizations.

They cannot use the money to construct a new church. This would violate the principle that "You may freely build a temple on your property if you wish; but you may not compel me to pay for it." They may restore what the natural disaster has taken from them to the same degree that any other nonprofit may do so, but they may not go beyond that and build things they did not have before using my money.


The one legitimate concern that this issue raises is that of abuse. A President could easily decide to make significantly greater contributions to religious institutions than he makes to nonreligious nonprofit institutions. In fact, a President lacking the virtue of fairness may spend all public money on repairing only the facilities of religious institutions and leaving others to suffer.

Yet, the abuse could also go the other direction, with religious nonprofit institutions getting none of the funds available to other nonreligious institutions.

The possibility that an individual may act in prejudicial and discriminatory manner in executing the duties of his office is not an argument against giving him those duties. It is an argument for making sure that the people who are put in that office have a sense of fairness and justice, and for holding accountable those who do not.


I have a sense that the American Atheists may have jumped on this issue simply by looking at the fact that it is a government issue that puts money into the pockets of those who believe in God.

This, itself, is not a moral crime. It is simplistic at best to look at an issue merely according to whether money goes from the public treasury to a religious institution to determine if a person has been treated unfairly. It is just as unfair to put an institution under a special disadvantage relative to others.

Some may question what this implies about faith-based initiatives. Would I argue that religious institutions have an equal right to participate in these funds?

Here, I would argue that they had an equal right before Bush’s faith-based initiative began. Religious institutions had every right to set up a secular organization that could qualify for government assistance to help those in need. The separate function helped to guarantee that no individual ended up supporting a religion that he did not belong to. The “Faith-Based Initiative” did not correct an underlying unfairness in obtaining government benefits.

S1746, on the other hand, simply states that religious facilities are not to be placed at an unfair disadvantage in obtaining government assistance. It is a fair and just proposal.

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