FFRF keeps after NASA’s unconstitutional grant to religious institute

After hearing back from NASA, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has re-upped its request for NASA to revoke a grant in excess of $1 million to a Christian-focused religious institute.

In May 2015, NASA's astrobiology program awarded $1.108 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry for "an interdisciplinary inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology, the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe." Center Director William Storrar stated at the time, "The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology's dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications."

NASA’s response on July 21 to FFRF’s initial complaint was that the grant did not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because “NASA’s purpose is simply to advance the dialog on the topic of astrobiology and society, which may or may not include religious perspectives.” But FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel says, despite what NASA claims, it is, in fact, a constitutional violation.

“NASA cannot simply divorce its claimed purpose from CTI’s admitted purpose,” he writes to Dr. Mary A. Voytek, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology. “The grant funds a self-professed theological inquiry to an institute that, as its name indicates, is solely geared towards theology. . . . We are not arguing that NASA could not, for instance, give a grant to a scholar on religious history or comparative religion. We are not even arguing that NASA cannot study the impact of astrobiology on society, of which religion is a part. The issue is with what the money is being used for: theology.”

NASA, in its response, tried to claim that it was following the Constitution. “To exclude one entity from competing for funding simply because some of its members have religious viewpoints would place NASA in the unfortunate situation of choosing between theistic and non-theistic viewpoints,” the response stated. But Seidel said that argument isn’t correct.

“We have never stated, let alone suggested, that NASA withhold funding from an entity because some staff members are religious,” he writes. “We are informing NASA that it cannot constitutionally fund theology; complying with the Constitution does not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has explicitly held that refusing to fund scholarships for theology is not religious discrimination under the First Amendment.”

FFRF has also submitted another Freedom of Information Act request to learn more about the grant’s awarding and NASA’s relationship with CTI.

FFRF is an organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with nearly 24,000 nonreligious members all over the country.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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