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The First Amendment is clear about the government not subsidizing religions and the wall of separation between church and state has stood firm since Thomas Jefferson's day. Now, however, the House of Representatives has tried to breach that wall by overwhelmingly passing a bill that would allow the use of federal funds to rebuild houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The first words of the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," appear to be contradicted by this bill and it will probably be declared unconstitutional if it's not first killed by the Senate or vetoed by a president who is also a constitutional lawyer.
The bill adds churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to the list of nonprofit organizations that provide "essential services of a governmental nature to the general public" and are therefore eligible for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The list includes museums, libraries, shelters, performing arts centers and zoos.
But as FEMA rightly pointed out in opposing the bill, religious statues, arks of the covenant, prayer books and stained glass religious art are not found among the furnishings of a library or museum.
Among those voting with the majority when the bill passed the House by a vote of 354 to 72 was Second District Congressman Joe Courtney. Also voting in favor was John Larson of the First District. The state's other House members, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Elizabeth Esty and James Himes, voted no. All five Connecticut representatives are Democrats.
Rep. Courtney admitted his aye vote was "a close call for me. I understand the First Amendment concerns, but, on balance, events such as Hurricane Sandy are, in my mind, analogous to fires and other emergencies when state resources including firefighters and police officers are provided when needed by a church. Because of the rare circumstances of a FEMA event such as Superstorm Sandy, I believe places of worship should have the same opportunity as others devastated by disaster to apply for assistance."
We admit to being baffled by Rep. Courtney's view that using government funds to rebuild a church is at all like having firefighters put out a fire in a church. Nor can we agree with his characterization of "a FEMA event such as Superstorm Sandy" as "rare." We seem to be having them here in the Northeast with some frequency and a natural disaster is almost a daily occurrence somewhere in the nation.
The Supreme Court has frequently ruled that since the government cannot use taxpayer funds to erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair. Jefferson's wall of separation must be "a high and impregnable barrier," as one ruling put it.
But the Court, in exhibiting a degree of wisdom not replicated by the House of Representatives, has also said churches can request public funds for facilities that are used for secular or non-religious purposes, such as homeless shelters and food kitchens.
It is therefore disappointing that members of the House did not look for constitutionally permissible ways to assist houses of worship instead of passing this perhaps well meaning, but clearly unconstitutional bill.