Sandy aid measure raises church/state separation

Sandy aid measure raises church/state separation
Photo by William Thomas
By Steve Mosco

As houses of worship pray for help rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, one secular organization hopes a bill it believes breaches separation of church and state stalls in the U.S. Senate.

Jason Stewart, a board member and New York representative with Americans United, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving church-state separation, said the bill that overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives simply violates constitutional law.

“The region has gone through a lot to rebuild from that storm and we understand the bill was put forth to help the community,” said Steward. “It simply violates the law. Using taxpayer funds to rebuild religious institutions goes against constitutional law.”

The current law states that worship space cannot receive federal funds, but other buildings owned by religious entities that use space for secular purposes, such as schools or community centers, can receive funds.

Stewart said allowing religious organizations to receive funding is dangerous because it opens up the possibility of lawmakers being influenced by these institutions.

“If we steer clear of allowing a change to this law, we wouldn’t have to worry about religious influence in our government,” he said.

Numerous churches, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship were badly damaged by the late October storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not generally provide grants to these institutions, but those providing non-religious social services can qualify for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Stewart said the funds called for in the bill, which was drafted by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing), would be direct grants that many organizations could use as they see fit.

“Even though these are difficult times, we have to stay true to the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent establishing that we cannot use state dollars to rebuild these organizations,” he said. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even [former President George W.] Bush didn’t allow for a change to this law.”

But with the bill’s lopsided approval in the House — it passed 354-72 — Stewart said he would not be surprised if it goes on to pass in the Senate.

“We’ll have our voice out there and we hope it stops in the Senate,” he said. “We definitely understand the political leadership’s standpoint about the need to help people rebuild, but we have to maintain our country’s principles.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4546.