HUD’s Faith-based Fiat Unparalleled Raid on Public Till (March 2003)

If President Bush’s proposal to grant federal money to build places of worship is approved, it would deal a crippling blow to the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, the Freedom From Religion Foundation warns.
The Bush Administration’s scheme, quietly unveiled in January, would permit public money to be used to build or reconstruct churches and other religious structures–so long as any part of the building is also used for “social services.”

“Under the proposed regulations, it would be difficult to imagine a church, mosque or synagogue that would not be eligible for federal dollars,” pointed out Foundation president Anne Gaylor. “Imagine the drain to taxpayers and the needy!
“Pres. Bush is turning on its head more than 200 years of traditional respect for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

“It is time to take true alarm, time for the public to weigh in on this issue and reject this proposal.”

The proposal would also rescind current requirements that religious organizations receiving HUD funding “provide assurances that they will conduct eligible program activities in a manner that is ‘free from religious influences.’ ” The proposed regulation states that this is “unfair” since secular entities are not required to make such a pledge.

The regulations offer no guidelines on the extent of social service use that would make a church eligible for funding. Instead, officials indicate funding would be decided case-by-case. The proposal declares any place of worship would be eligible for public-funded construction “where a structure is used for both eligible and inherently religious activities.”

“If a church lets a support group for single mothers meet in a lounge once a week, would it therefore be eligible for tax dollars if it wishes to enlarge or improve a room that benefits the church 99% of the time? The scenarios for abuse are endless,” Gaylor said.

The process would be rife with opportunities for political corruption, for public officials to funnel money to the congregation or denomination of their choice, and for powerful churches to lobby for public funding in exchange for mustering political support from their congregations.

Foundation spokesman Dan Barker said the Administration is “bypassing the 3 C’s”:

“Court precedent, Congress, and the Constitution.”

The courts have never permitted such a breach in the wall of separation between church and state, he said. “Nor has Congress been consulted. Once again Bush has promoted this radical departure from the status quo through fiat, not democratic processes.”

At the heart of Bush’s argument is his claim that the government has been “discriminating” against churches, said Barker, a former minister. But churches themselves discriminate–in dogma, practice, and employment. “The Establishment Clause absolutely requires that churches be treated differently from secular entities, because their basis for existence is to propound exclusionary doctrine and dogma, which the government may not endorse.”

The Administration’s “faith-based initiatives” permit publicly-funded religious groups to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation in hiring staff. It is uncertain how far the discrimination can extend, since churches as employers also regularly discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, and personal conduct issues.

Barker pointed to Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia statute for religious freedom, with its guarantee that no citizen may be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship–wording which was adopted in many state constitutions.

“Our founders were unalterably opposed to the idea that citizens could ever be taxed to support a place of worship. This is at the heart of guarantees to U.S. citizens made by our secular Constitution, that citizens shall not be tithed to support a church against their conscience.”

Religion already gets the credit for charities that taxpayers often get the bill for, he added. Although some homeless shelters are housed in churches, it is often county governments that pick up the bill, including rent for use of the religious facility. Especially under aggressive new governmental funding of religious social services, it is foreseeable that churches, already well-paid for serving the public, could invoke publicly-financed programs in churches to apply for construction projects at taxpayer expense –thus double-billing taxpayers for services rendered.

“What is also being forgotten is that any public subsidy extended to religious groups frees up their coffers to promote religion,” said Gaylor.

If a church doesn’t need its own building fund because it may apply for federal subsidy, it can obviously direct its own resources for proselytizing: buying bibles, ministerial perqs, bigger crosses and crucifixes, advertising. “Any public subsidy of churches inevitably ends up being government support of religion,” said Gaylor.

Gaylor noted that churches already receive a major public subsidy–tax exemption. There is no practical difference between giving public money to a church outright, and failing to send them a tax bill, she added.

The Foundation pointed out another grave problem–churches are the only nonprofits exempted from filing a yearly Form 990 detailing purpose, officers’ salaries, income sources and what it spends on charitable purposes, overhead and fundraising. The rules posted by the White House propose that religious groups would have to be audited each year if they have incomes of more than $300,000.

“This would be an accounting and monitoring nightmare,” Gaylor added.

The scheme was quietly announced in the Federal Register (Monday, January 6, 2003) under “Participation in HUD Programs by Faith-Based Organizations.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation