On Friday, Trump signed a new budget deal that is in direct contrast to what America’s founders fought for.
For decades, FEMA did not include houses of worship to its disaster aid programs. However, the new bill will now allow churches to use taxpayer money, FEMA, to rebuild churches that have been damaged or destroyed by natural disasters.
The budget reads, “No house of worship may be excluded from this definition.”
It goes on to define religious facilities as “A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility, shall be eligible for contributions under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility. No house of worship, educational facility, or any other private nonprofit facility may be excluded from receiving contributions under paragraph (1)(B) because leadership or membership in the organization operating the house of worship is limited to persons who share a religious faith or practice.”
The new legislation is expected to add over $300 billion to the federal deficit.
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The new budget deal has received criticism from different groups.
The Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America Larry T. Decker has pleaded with Congress to keep the line between church and state and has warned about the dangers of the new budget.
In a statement by Decker, he wrote, “This bill would rebuild churches by knocking down the wall of separation between church and state. Contrary to the religious right’s talking points, houses of worship can already be reimbursed for any costs they incur while providing relief and assistance during natural disasters. This provision hidden in the Bipartisan Budget Act would give churches a special entitlement to taxpayer money by requiring FEMA to fund the reconstruction of religious facilities. It is unconstitutional and unconscionable for Congress to decree that churches are entitled to taxpayer funding. The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to decide for themselves what religious institutions, if any, they support with their money. If Congress votes to put FEMA in the business of building churches, it will violate this core constitutional principle and compromise the very foundation of our secular government.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has also described the new budget a “dangerous piece of legislation.”
The Foundation wrote, “The act would unconstitutionally entangle church and state financially by sending federal funds to religious organizations. This dangerous piece of legislation … would legislate the government’s authorization for religious organizations to use Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money to build churches.”
It continued, “Like all nonprofits, religious groups can already be reimbursed for disaster relief aid they provide to the community. But this act and FEMA’s recent change in policy — which now allows houses of worship to apply for federal assistance — will allow religious institutions exclusive access to funding for their facilities used specifically for worship. Whether or not they have actually provided relief to their community during or after a disaster will not matter. This act is an affront to the American foundational principle that citizens may not be taxed to attend, erect or support churches.”
The legal and policy director for American Atheists, Alison Gill, has also criticized the new bill, saying, “Congress is literally taking money from the individuals and communities who most need disaster relief and giving it to unaccountable houses of worship.”
She continued, “Houses of worship are exempt from even the most basic financial disclosure requirements, and giving them taxpayer funds to build altars, minarets, and holy arks is a recipe for fraud and abuse.”
She added, “Either houses of worship get our tax dollars with zero transparency and accountability, or the government gets to tell them how to exercise their faith. Both are unacceptable and unconstitutional. Our government should stay out of the church-building business.”
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that religious institutions could not be barred from receiving government grants that were meant for a secular purpose. It’s unclear whether this new budget will be covered under that same ruling or if a new case will surface as a result.
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