In tough economic times, who could possibly object to a few government aid dollars going to houses of worship ravaged by Superstorm Sandy late last year? Turns out a number of Church-State separation supporters do – in adherence to the Constitution – and with concern for the loss of independence from government interference that is a cornerstone of religious freedom in this country. When Uncle Sam pays for the cross on your steeple, fo your stained-glass windows, and for your pulpit, how are you going to speak prophetic truth to power from that same pulpit? Interfaith Alliance Deputy Director for Public Policy Arielle Gingold explains the importance of not violating the crucial separation clause in this instance, no matter how kind-hearted such action might appear to be.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Arielle Gingold[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: There’s a complicated issue wending its way through the legislative process here in Washington – which is already complicated enough! This past week the House of Representatives voted 354-72 in support of providing federal disaster aid for houses of worship that were damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Supporters of the bill have spoken movingly about the role these churches, mosques and synagogues play in these devastated communities hit by the hurricane. So why do Interfaith Alliance and other Church-State separation advocates strongly oppose this seemingly kind-hearted effort?
We need to give you an explanation about that. And here to help explain what’s really at stake here is Arielle Gingold, who serves as Deputy Director for Public Policy at Interfaith Alliance. She’s been on the show before.
Arielle, welcome back to State of Belief.[ARIELLE GINGOLD, GUEST]: Thanks for having me, Welton. [WG]: Well, let’s start – just in case someone doesn’t have the big picture – let’s start by summarizing the action that Congress took this past week. [AG]: Sure. So in short, the House, as you said, passed a bill that changes existing FEMA policy of not granting direct grants to rebuild their facilities to houses of worship – changed that policy to explicitly state that houses of worship are eligible. The current category of organizations – non-profit organizations – that are eligible for these direct grants are those that “provide essential services of a government nature.” And so the bill basically says that houses of worship provide those essential services, and would be eligible for those grants. [WG]: Arielle, this same issue came up after Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Rita, along the Gulf Coast region. The same arguments were made. What happened in that situation? Did Congress change anything in those instances? [AG]: So after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress did not act to change policies. There were discussions at the Administration level, and Bush Administration officials said flat-out that houses of worship were not, and should not, be eligible. I believe that some still got money, but i think it was limited to their social service organizations: to their soup kitchens, their homeless shelters, etc. The other important thing to note here is that houses of worship are already eligible for Small Business Administration loans, and those loans are up to $2 million. So of course, a loan and a grant are different in nature, but they are already eligible for some assistance. [WG]: The problem in talking about this is: politicians are very conscious about how they are understood and perceived, even more than what they’re voting on, in many instances. And this sounds good. It sounds kind; it sounds compassionate. But it is unprecedented in many ways, and there are serious reasons for that. It’s just a difficult time, don’t you think? [AG]: It is, and it’s a difficult time for the houses of worship who are in need of funding; but it’s also the wrong time to shift policy like this – I think any time is the wrong time to make this kind of policy shift – but this is the wrong time. I don’t there ever would be a right time on this issue, because at the end of the day, though the funding might help them rebuild, it will also set them up in a bad position in terms of their religious freedom, their autonomy, the ability of clergy to be a prophetic voice – to speak truth to power. It gets harder to speak truth to power when you’re also indebted to that power, financially. And it would, in the end, be the wrong thing for these houses of worship. So this is an issue not just of the government not establishing religion in this way – it seems a pretty basic violation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment to have Congress, to have the government building houses of worship – but it’s also for the interests of the religious institutions. [WG]: The rationale that supports of federal aid to storm-damaged houses of worship revolve around the civil purposes some of those facilities are used for. Talk a minute about the fact that in most cases, existing policies already allow disaster aid for these kinds of facilities – because I think that’s been muddled in the debate – and I think you’ve already alluded to it, to some extent. [AG]: Absolutely. So there are two pieces worth clarifying here. The first is, as you mentioned, that many houses of worship who have social services that they provide – soup kitchens, homeless shelters, things of that nature – are already eligible for disaster relief aid for those facilities. Currently, if houses of worship provide these essential government-like services, and the facilities in which they provide them – more than 50% of that space is used more than 50% of the time to provide that service, then they are eligible for the aid. So this would be taking a section of a house of worship, or the soup kitchen that’s run in a separate building, and saying, not only are those eligible, which they are already, but the entire house of worship – up to the cross on the top of the building, the stained-glass windows, possibly even the prayerbooks in the houses of worship – now, those are eligible as well, writ large. Which puts FEMA in the position of saying what they will or will not cover, what is or is not religious, etc. And it’s also inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent – two cases in particular – that say that not only can you not build spaces that are used for religious functions even within larger facilities, like religious schools or universities – the government can’t build chapels, for example; you can’t refurbish them because who knows whether the facility used today is more than not for a secular purpose, who knows in the future if the rec room of the house of worship will be as well. [WG]: Why do I find myself getting a little angry while you talk? I mean, I like you, but I don’t like what you’re saying. And let me be real clear here: does this mean – put it right down on street level – does this mean that the people who listen to State of Belief who really don’t identify with any religion, feel very comfortable apart from religion, even an Atheist listener – they’re going to have to fund a program, with their tax dollars, that may involve the government building steeples on churches; putting bemas in synagogues, putting prayer rugs on the floor in mosques, and maybe even funding stained-glass windows – is that what that means? [AG]: That is a definite possibility. That is how this could play out. And beyond that, even people of faith – I, as Reformed Jew – my tax dollars shouldn’t support other religions’ houses of worship; even other Jewish sanctuaries. I get to decide which houses of worship I support, and how I support them. And that’s not what our tax dollars should be spent on. [WG]: Yeah, I was going to ask, how is that not an intrusion into religion? [AG]: It does seem like an intrusion in many ways into religion, into not establishing a religion, and seems quite inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent on this, as well. [WG]: So why can the people in Congress not understand that? [AG]: They’re in a tricky situation, I think, in many ways, because so many of their constituents are affected. And this is an issue that is really hitting even the strictest separationists in Congress in a difficult way, because it’s a matter of competing principles: caring for the people in their district, as well as standing by these principles. Many members of Congress do get that: 72 “no” votes is significant, especially considering we had three days to turn this around, between when the bill was introduced and when it was voted on. It didn’t get a hearing; this was pretty fast-tracked. So luckily, there are Members of Congress who get this; but I think part of the problem is that those on the other side – advocates on the other side who are supporting this policy shift – are billing it as an issue of religious discrimination; as an issue of houses of worship and people of faith are being discriminated against by not being eligible for this funding. And that just isn’t the case. As I mentioned, there are a whole category of non-profit organizations that are not eligible for this money.
On top of that, what we’re talking about here is saying that houses of worship and the services they provide are essential services that are government-like. There are many people, myself included, who would say that what houses of worship do is essential for many communities, for many people. But to say that anything that a house of worship does is government-like is a problem both legally, I think, and theologically – philosophically. Because even though a house of worship may provide a shelter for people, my provide food – I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any that say – any clergy, any people of faith that say – they do it to be like government. They do it out of their theological beliefs; they do it out of their religious mission. So we have some legal problems here, but we also have philosophical-religious problems here, with the implications for houses of worship for saying that what they’re doing is like government.[WG]: Yeah, and, I mean, nobody questions the fact that a house of worship ought to give comfort in these situations; but the fact is, there are some times that the house of worship does its best work in the nation when it acts as a prophetic voice for the government to do more, or for the government to do things a different way. [AG]: Absolutely. [WG]: And I’ve said this, I’ve used this phrase over and over, to the point of being monotonous to people who know me, but when did we ever have a prophet whose salary was paid by the government speak truth to power, when the power has his paycheck? [AG]: Right. [WG]: So there are all kinds of things wrong here. It passed the House. What’s the chance in the Senate? [AG]: The future in the Senate seems a bit unclear. There has not been a bill introduced yet. We’re figuring out what the timing would be. Mostly the path forward seems unclear. The rules in the Senate are different; vote processes are different; so we’re talking to allies in the Senate, we’re trying to get a sense of what the future would be. But hopefully, this will not move forward. [WG]: So if it didn’t move forward, it would just die? [AG]: Correct – unless there’s some sort of action from the Administration, or unless FEMA changes their policy – which, all indications have been, that FEMA, who would have to administer these policy changes – are not eager to make these changes, and do understand the implications for any kind of policy shift in this way. [WG]: OK, now this needs to be an answer shorter than it deserves: tell us about what you, as a policy person at the Interfaith Alliance, is doing to bring an understanding of the risk of the case for federal funding to houses of worship? [AG]: So we met extensively and spoke over the phone with members of Congress’ staff about the implications for religious freedom, and we’re really trying to focus, in these conversations with the House, with the Senate, on the harm to religion. We’ve also had many, many members of Interfaith Alliance – hundreds and hundreds of members – write to their elected officials, also conveying this message. We sent a letter to the whole House last week, and we’re prepared to send one up to the Senate when the time comes. And we’re really trying to get folks in the northeast who were affected by the impact of Superstorm Sandy to weigh in, as well. Some have already done so; Rev. Mark Lukens, a clergy member in New York who also is a leader of an Interfaith Alliance affiliate up there, spoke very eloquently on NPR about the harm, to him as a clergy member and to his church, by taking any federal aid. So we’re trying to really spread that message. [WG]: Arielle Gingold is Deputy Director for Public Policy at Interfaith Alliance. I’m always happy when our listeners can benefit from the expertise in our office. Arielle is a really fine worker, and understands this issue as few others do. And I want to thank her for briefing us today on State of Belief Radio; I also want to encourage you, if you want to know more about this issue and what’s being done on it, to write to Arielle at Interfaith Alliance. So before you say “thank you,” tell them how to reach you with that, and then say “thank you.” [AG]: Absolutely. You can reach me by emailing me at email@example.com. And I do hope – especially if you’re in the northeast – we’d love to hear from you on this issue. So, thank you for having me. [WG]: And thanks to you, Arielle. [AG]: You’re welcome.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.