In between Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump took the time to plant a tweet bomb under the First Amendment. “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” he twittered.
If it seems a little hasty to start arguing about money before the streets are dry, that’s because, well, we’re talking big money here, and not just disaster money. The thing about today’s religious right is it is really focused on the bottom line—and the First Amendment is starting to look like roadkill on the path to the ultimate payday.
The demand for FEMA relief for houses of worship sounded innocuous at first. In view of the devastating news from Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Mississippi, and the ongoing recovery process in Texas and Florida, who could object to helping out churches, especially those that offered aid to hurricane and flood refugees, in their own hour of need? The funny thing is that it seemed some churches couldn’t wait to be denied federal money. Even as the floodwaters from Harvey flowed through the streets, three Texas churches filed a federal lawsuit on September 4, alleging that FEMA’s policy of excluding houses of worship from disaster-relief grants is unfair and unconstitutional.
One plaintiff, Assembly of God Church, in Rockport, Texas, is the beneficiary of a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. “What’s more heartbreaking is to have wind storm insurance, it would costs [sic] the church over $15,000 a year,” explains AshLee Frazier, the daughter of the church’s pastor, Bruce Frazier, on the church’s GoFundMe page. “In a small community like Rockport that’s simple [sic] not affordable.”
People who would like to contribute to the $250,000 funding drive to repair the church’s storm-damaged roof and classrooms should know that the church denomination’s core beliefs (like those of a second plaintiff, Harvest Family Church) include “that the growing cultural acceptance of homosexual behavior (male and female), same-sex marriage, and efforts to change one’s biological and sexual identity are all symptomatic of a broader spiritual disorder that threatens the family, the government, and the church.”
The third plaintiff, the Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, Texas, subscribes to the belief that that “the spread of oriental [sic] religions and the occult in America has brought with it an increase in demon possession similar to that reported formerly by missionaries on foreign fields.”
If this all seems a little premeditated—lawsuits demanding federal benefits even as cleanup had scarcely begun—that’s because it is. Over the past two decades, leaders of the religious right have been increasingly keen, not just to protect the tax-advantaged privileges of their religious organizations, but to lay claim to public funds through various strategies. One thing has stood in the way of that plan: the First Amendment, with its ban on the establishment of religion. This kind of foundational demolition of the First Amendment is, of course, precisely what the religious right now needs in order to turn weather disasters into a downspout of free government cash.
The real power behind the lawsuits isn’t the small-town plaintiffs, but the big-league, religious-right legal advocacy groups that are underwriting the process and organizing their political allies. Trump’s tweet and the lawsuit were swiftly followed by a Senate bill, introduced by Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas; Roy Blunt of Missouri; and James Lankford of Oklahoma, that would amend the Stafford Act to allow houses of worship to receive FEMA grants.
The disaster-relief gambit first showed up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and it was until recently the source of some frustration for the religious right. The House swiftly passed a bill pandering to their demands. “FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory,” said the bill’s sponsor, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith. But the Republican-controlled Senate balked, largely out of the legitimate concern that such aid raised constitutional issues.
The spate of anti-LGBT legislation that recently passed through some red-state legislatures demonstrates that religious organizations are motivated by more than their belief systems. On the surface, the “cake baker” bills, which are intended to allow individuals and organizations to discriminate against members of the public in accordance with “sincerely held religious beliefs,” seemed to reflect straightforward homophobia. But another goal of these proposals that is often spelled out in the text of the bills is to ensure that religious organizations that practice discrimination cannot be stripped of their lucrative tax exemptions. Money is also the prime mover behind much of the “school choice movement,” which proponents on the religious right accurately see as a way of funneling money from public school budgets into private religious academies.
It was a Supreme Court decision, and not another tropical storm system, that reinvigorated the disaster-funding issue. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which centered on public funding of a church playground in Missouri, the Supreme Court cleared the way for churches to receive taxpayer subsidies without having to worry about pesky First Amendment concerns.
Though the reasoning behind the decision is complex, it turns on a trope that religious conservatives have used consistently to bulldoze the First Amendment. They have argued that any attempt to distinguish religious activity from other activities is in itself a form of discrimination against religion. Which is somewhat paradoxical, given that the First Amendment itself specifically distinguishes between religion and other kinds of activity, such as speech, precisely in order to prevent an establishment of religion.
To be sure, FEMA does offer grants to certain nonprofit organizations—those that are involved in providing essential services, such as shelter, disability aid, child care, social and human services, and so on. All such nonprofits have that status because the people, through the Congress, have decided that their activities are such that they merit a public subsidy in the form of a tax exemption. What the religious right wants you to think is that religious organizations are nonprofits in exactly this sense. But they aren’t.
Religious organizations have a tax exemption not because the public has an interest in funding them, but because it has generally been felt that taxation would limit the freedom of exercise of religion that is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Precisely for that reason, religious organizations are exempt from reporting requirements imposed on those nonprofits that perform these essential services. They are also exempt from the nondiscrimination laws with which other nonprofit groups are compelled to comply.
Churches do provide some essential services some of the time. To the extent that they do, and if they should organize those activities with the kind of transparency and accountability required of other nonprofits, few would argue with their claim to public money. But then again, some churches do not open their doors to the needy (consider the case of Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, which did not open its doors to evacuees when Harvey first hit Houston as some other churches did). Many for-profit businesses willingly lend a hand (consider Mattress Mack) without expecting government funding.
The religious right is trying to have it both ways. They want Americans to view churches as no different from any other nonprofit when it comes to taking public money (hence the cries of injustice). Yet if Americans object to subsidizing groups that preach the evils of “oriental religions,” then they are asked to respect their religious rights and exempt them from the accountability and non-discrimination laws that apply to other non-profits. Churches are free to buy insurance, just as businesses are. If they now know that they can count on the government to fix their roof after a windstorm, they won’t buy insurance—and that amounts to yet another a public subsidy.
Respecting the separation of church and state is not just a matter of adhering to constitutional norms. It is also a matter of respecting the common sense embedded in the Constitution. Once the government is involved in managing the insurance needs of churches, won’t public officials expect to have a hand in church management? Shouldn’t the government require the kind of transparency that it gets from other nonprofits? Shouldn’t “oriental” and “homosexual” taxpayers have a say?
There was a time when most of the country’s religious organizations understood this point, and supported the separation of church and state. They didn’t see that separation as an attack on religion, but as a guarantee of their own freedom. But the religious right is blind to that distinction. The money is just too good. If churches keep winning these cases, the dollars will rain from the skies.