A recently announced Federal Emergency Management Agency mega-giveaway to a Florida church is unconstitutional, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FEMA has reportedly approved a grant of $1,973,993 to Hiland Park United Pentecostal Church in Panama City, apparently to reimburse recovery expenses for damage resulting from Hurricane Michael. The grant includes funds to repair the church’s sanctuary, fellowship hall, cafeteria, classrooms and other facilities and has been lauded by a politician of such prominence as Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from funding religious worship, FFRF emphasizes.
“FEMA may not use public resources to repair a church building that will be used for religious worship,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to FEMA senior official Robert Fenton Jr. “Awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to repair churches constitutes government endorsement of religion.”
It is important to note, FFRF adds, that denial of such governmental grants to churches would not violate their Free Exercise rights. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which a Missouri church was denied participation in a state program to resurface its school playground, the Supreme Court carefully explained that the case hinged on the fact that funding was not going to an “essentially religious endeavor.” Here, a grant used to repair and renovate substantial portions of a church’s buildings, including the sanctuary, promises to do exactly that. So, awarding these funds violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, while denying them does no harm to the church’s Free Exercise rights.
“Taxpayers of all religions — and no religion — are being forced to finance the reconstruction of a Christian place of worship,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However sympathetic one might be to the plight of those facing damage from so-called ‘Acts of God’ such as hurricanes, giving away nearly $2 million in precious taxpayer dollars to support a church is blatantly unconstitutional.”
FEMA cannot advance religion by repairing buildings used explicitly for religious worship and should revoke this unconstitutional grant immediately, FFRF is demanding.
In another similar recent case, FFRF asked FEMA to rescind a proposed $1.2 million dollar grant to a Kentucky church that supposedly would serve as a tornado shelter on occasion, an intervention that has led to FEMA promising to review its grant. It seems that FEMA is feeling unconstitutionally generous recently.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,700 members and a chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.