Managing Crisis

Does Separation of Church and State Prohibit Disaster Relief?

Providing relief to religious institutions may violate the Constitution

by Lucien G. Canton / February 19, 2013

One of the major historical trends in disaster relief has been the continued expansion of the services provided by the Federal government to disaster victims. From the first relief bills in 1790 that relieved the victims of the excise tax on goods destroyed by fire and flood, Federal disaster relief has changed from relief to specific individuals to assistance to a class of victims and from minor economic relief to major entitlement programs. According to Michele Landis-Dauber, author of The Sympathetic State, this expansion greatly influenced the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt and led to the creation of the American Welfare State. We may well be seeing another major shift occurring.

In a recent vote the House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow the use of Federal money to rebuild places of worship damaged by the storm commonly known as Superstorm Sandy. This is a major departure from previous policies based on the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

The issue is complicated. On the one hand, places of worship are more than just places of religious observance. They are often a center of community life and may be used for multiple purposes. For example, the church that my family attends frequently reconfigures its liturgical space for community events such as dances, fund raisers and, most recently, an art show. In San Francisco, places of worship are an integral part of our winter shelter program, opening their space to house the homeless who would otherwise be at risk from severe weather. In times of disaster, many places of worship serve the community as shelters, feeding sites, or points of distribution.

This disaster role is recognized by FEMA and under certain conditions Federal reimbursements are available for social services performed by places of worship . As a business, places of worships can potentially qualify for Small Business Administration Loans. The issue here, however, is whether or not tax dollars should be used to rebuild places of worship on the theory that they are "pillars of the community" that should be treated the same as other non-profits such as zoos, libraries, theaters, etc. The argument against providing relief funding to places of worship is, of course, that such a use of taxpayer money would violate the Constitutional separation of church and state.

Should the Senate approve the bill in the coming weeks, there will be an immediate challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, something that FEMA's attorneys are well aware of and have been attempting to avoid. If this is the case, it may be years before we have a final resolution and it will be a long, costly, and divisive conflict.