I have avoided discussing "freedom of religion"; my biases are easily impugned. In the interest of disclosure, I have two degrees in Biblical studies, and have been involved in various parachurch ministries including serving as Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild and member in Christian rock band Collision. For many of my political positions I have religious reasons, kept out of the public debate because they are only relevant to those who share my religious presuppositions. If there are not good reasons for my positions that are not religious, I have no business imposing such views on people who disagree with my beliefs.
This is more difficult when the issue is freedom of speech, association, assembly, and religion--all closely connected, and closely tied with that "other" category of "religious" belief, politics. Yet when Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor of one of New Jersey's largest in-state newspapers, The Record, claims that a proposed law is a violation of those protections, and his reasoning is flawed, it becomes necessary to address the matter.
At issue is a bill popular in the House of Representatives, related to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. Those laws supervise disaster relief, from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to the storm damage of Hurricane Sandy. Federal money can in such situations rebuild homes, businesses, infrastructure, schools, almost anything damaged or destroyed by the disaster--but not religious institutions or places of worship. The bill addresses that, stating that federal money can rebuild such structures--churches, but also mosques, synagogues, temples, and the facilities of religious organizations.
Doblin objects. He says, "Using federal money to build a religious sanctuary of any faith is exactly what the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent." He objects to his tax money funding reconstruction of facilities of religious groups whose positions he finds offensive, and rightly states that government could not use any test of the beliefs of those groups to refuse funding.
Although we are sympathetic to Doblin's position, it won't withstand scrutiny.
First, this is not about building religious buildings; it is about insuring against damage of such magnitude. In disasters, insurance companies default, unable to cover the costs of such "acts of God", and so government covers those losses. Rebuilding a destroyed church is not the same as building one.
Second, while it is certainly the case that the founding fathers wanted to prevent the government from building churches for specific religions, when the bill is non-discriminatory (that is, it pays for mosques and churches equally) it is not promoting a specific religion. In funding repairs to facilities of all religions, the government avoids religious bias--and it is religious bias that is at issue, the promotion of any one belief over any other.
Third, Doblin mentions that some people would prefer that federal funds not go to secular organizations that promote policies contrary to their personal religious beliefs, such as the objections to funding Planned Parenthood by those religiously opposed to abortions. Yet in such disasters, FEMA funds such "non-religious" organizations, secular institutions which take positions on what are to others essentially religious issues (at what point the "product of conception" becomes a person with inalienable rights is a religious question in its essence). To fund such institutions and not fund churches because the latter are overtly religious is to make a law concerning the establishment of religion--to exclude those whose work in the community is based on faith in God rather than faith in man's philosophies. If a bill were proposed that said that everyone below a certain income level could receive food stamps unless they were Jewish, that would obviously be a law concerning the establishment of religion; to say that every building of any purpose in a community can receive money to help repairs unless it is a religious building is to write a law biased against religion, opposing all religions that believe in and worship God and no religions that believe in and extol man.
Finally, in many cases churches are part of the solution. They often provide emergency shelter, food for the destitute and indigent, clothing and other resources. The Salvation Army is a religious organization that does a tremendous amount to help the needy, sending aid to disasters as reliably as the Red Cross. To penalize those who are helping out of religious conviction is not only discriminatory against religion, it is counter-productive in the effort to aid others. Most religious institutions have helped at least some in their communities. Refusing to help them in their time of need is to reduce their ability to help in the future.
Mr. Doblin is mistaken. FEMA is acting unconstitutionally precisely when it refuses aid to any organization in a disaster area based on religious grounds. That ought to be changed.