Storm damage and religion: Hurricane Sandy didn’t blow away the Constitution
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal contained an opinion piece by Avi Schick, an attorney in private practice in New York. Schick demands taxpayer aid to pay for houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy and implies that this is just a commonsense thing to do.
I was born and raised on the Jersey shore. My parents are still making repairs to their house, which sustained damage in Sandy’s wake. Believe me, I understand that this is serious business.
The storm caused extensive damage along the East Coast, and I feel for everyone who took a hit. But I also know that we must resist the temptation to use a disaster – even one of this magnitude – as an excuse to violate core constitutional values.
One of those values is that government does not pay to erect, maintain or repair houses of worship. That has been our policy for more than 220 years in the United States. Religious groups are expected to pay their own way. Even in the wake of Sandy, we must keep it that way. Otherwise we could easily end up in a situation where taxpayers are handed the bill every time a house of worship needs repair.
Some argue that a policy like this is unfair because tax aid is often extended to other types of buildings in the wake of violent storms. In fact, most privately held non-profit groups don’t get taxpayer aid when disasters strike unless they perform some essential public service.
We must also remember that religion has always been subject to special rules under the U.S Constitution. On one hand, houses of worship don’t qualify for direct government support; on the other, they enjoy tax exemption and are often free from the regulations and oversight that other entities must follow.
This last point should not be overlooked. Religious groups already receive many special privileges under the law as well as a host of exemptions from laws that all other groups must follow. But the one thing they cannot receive is direct taxpayer support.
Simply put, it’s not the job of the government to provide places for people to worship or to subsidize sacred spaces. Unlike schools, hospitals, libraries and community centers, houses of worship serve a private purpose. They exist to promulgate specific theological points of view. Forcing taxpayers to support the construction or repair of structures that exist chiefly to promote theology is no different than imposing a religion tax on people.
As I explained recently in a letter to congressional leaders, Houses of worship can qualify for certain forms of limited and indirect governmental aid, such as low-interest Small Business Administration loans. But their best hedge against disaster is the same thing most homeowners in America rely upon – a good insurance policy. Religion is barred from looking to the government for a bailout.
Hurricane Sandy was a tragic event. Many people – including my own mother and father – are still dealing with the after-effects. Let’s not compound the tragedy by violating one of the central commands of our Constitution: that in America, no one can be forced to support religion.
Neither President Barack Obama, nor Congress, should yield to the demands for funding of houses of worship.