The following call to action was posted in the Freedom From Religion Foundation website, claiming it violates the establishment clause:
Please contact your U.S. Senator today and tell him or her to vote against the Senate version of House Resolution 592.
The federal government is perilously close to using your tax dollars to directly fund the building, maintenance and repair of “houses of worship,” including churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. H.R. 592, the so-called Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, passed the U.S. House in early February by a lopsided 354 to 72 vote — after strong lobbying by Roman Catholic and even Jewish groups. [...]
The Supreme Court has specifically stated that our government may not erect religious buildings, Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672, 683 (1971), and “[i]f the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair.” Comm. For Pub. Ed. & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 777 (1973). [...]
This bill sets the precedent to allow funds to go to all religious groups, including, as has been observed, to the most hateful bigots, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.
I’m not sure how I feel about this, but it’s nothing very strong either way. The core of the argument is that the use of taxpayer money to rebuild houses of worship of any kind violates the First Amendment. Not only is there a legal precedent, but the money would be better spent rebuilding people’s homes instead going to non-tax paying entities.
I don’t think the legal precedent clearly applies in this case, though. I’m no lawyer, but this isn’t a case of the state using taxpayer money to erect a new religious building, or to “maintain or renovate” an existing one. They’re helping communities rebuild the ones that got wiped away after a massive storm. If the Supreme Court ever got involved in this specific issue, it’s entirely possible that they would rule that there’s sufficient similarity to prohibit the funding from being used in this way; however I think there’s enough of a difference in circumstances that an argument could be made that this represents an exception to the ruling.
That said, I think there’s some practical wisdom in applying a common-sense prioritization of funds to make sure that the lion’s share goes to housing, municipal services, and economic infrastructure. Additional considerations can be made after that, with places of worship being near last on the list. There may not be anything unconstitutional about rebuilding churches and temples after a natural disaster, but having convenient access to a meeting place of like minded people for fellowship and collective worship is not as important as ensuring that every resident has a roof over their heads and access to water, electricity, and reasonably reliable indoor plumbing.
As a side note, I was talking to my wife about this in the car earlier, and we pretty much agreed that as long as it’s even handed, there’s probably no worry of running afoul of the Constitution. “Still,” I said, “I just want to make sure that they’d be just as willing to give the money to some kind of secular meeting place, like … I don’t know … the Building for People Who Think Richard Dawkins is a Really Cool Guy.”
The more I think about it, the more I want to see that happen … if only to see what the final product would look like.