“Go, inquire of Hashem on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Yehuda, concerning the words of this scroll that has been found.” II Kings 22:13 (The Israel Bible™)
Religious movements and values are increasingly making their way into public life in the US as lawmakers introduce legislation to earmark federal funds for houses of worship and students bring their Bibles to school, signaling a new age in the interaction between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in America.
While the role of religion in public life has long been controversial among advocates for the separation of Church and State who consider these trends to be an encroachment on the U.S. constitution, recent months have seen a shift towards bringing the Bible, God, and houses of worship into the public arena. Both in politics and education, religious supporters are requesting legitimacy in public life, and legislators are listening.
Meanwhile, religious movements such as “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” which attracts hundreds of thousands of students across the nation each year, also aim to engage religion in public arenas. Surprisingly, the general shift towards accepting this trend has received widespread bipartisan support, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the President of the United States, Senate Republicans, and even several Democrats.
While these groups do not agree on much, when it comes to supporting houses of worship and enforcing freedom of religion, a rare consensus, perhaps signaling a new age in the interaction between religion and public life, is beginning.
In the wake of the recent major natural disasters in Texas and Florida, on September 19th, Senate Republicans Ted Cruz (R-TX), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), and James Lankford (R-OK) introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which would make houses of worship eligible for routine federal disaster aid. The proposed legislation seeks to permit religious institutions to receive federal relief, easing recovery efforts after natural disaster.
The bill has 18 cosponsors, 17 Republicans and Democratic Representative Grace Meng (D-NY), who argue that because houses of worship play an essential role in the daily lives of nationwide communities, they should receive public funding for rebuilding when disaster strikes. Often, they say, such religious institutions offer invaluable education, enrichment, and social activities that are essential for community building.
US President Donald Trump, who called for a day of prayer after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, chimed in on the conversation, tweeting in support of the bill.
Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2017
In a rare agreement between President Trump and black lawmakers, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group with 48 Democratic and one Republican lawmaker, agreed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should fund houses of worship to assist the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Religious institutions are generally unable to receive grants from the FEMA Public Assistance program unless their facilities are primarily used for “educational, utility, emergency, medical […] custodial, or essential services of a governmental nature.” Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) argued, however, that these primary uses are often the case for houses of worships, which “provide vital support during natural disasters including food, comfort, shelter and much more.”
Adversaries maintain that building churches, synagogues, and mosques would breach the First Amendment’s protection of separation of church and state. “Our hearts are with those suffering in the wake of the hurricanes and we want to support them. But we also want to protect the Constitution and the religious freedom values that protect all of us,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
But according to the sponsors of the bill, there is precedence in Congress and the Supreme Court for enacting “legislation providing financial assistance to religious nonprofit institutions, including houses of worship, on terms equal to other eligible non profit institutions.”
Under the Stafford Act, houses of worship are ineligible for FEMA grants for the repair, reconstruction, or replacement of private nonprofit facilities. “Religious non-profit organizations, including churches, synagogues… and community centers should not be excluded from federal disaster assistance just because they are faith-based,” Cruz said in a statement.
In addition to seeing a shift towards religion in political arenas, the United States is also seeing a public shift in educational settings. Christian group “Focus on the Family” is sponsoring a “Bring Your Bible to School Day” on October 5th in a campaign that encourages kids to exercise their First Amendment rights by bring their bibles to school. Last year, over 356,000 joined the movement by signing up for the event online.
Established in 2014, Bring Your Bible to School Day was initially intended to counteract the Unconstitutional ban of Bibles from educational settings. Organizers said they planned the day in response to a Florida boy whose teacher said he couldn’t read the Bible in her classroom during free reading time.
But according to the U.S. Department of Education, the Constitution protects students’ right to pray and read from religious texts during non-instructional time. Although many schools consider the topic of religion in public schools to be controversial and even offensive, limiting this would be considered a breach of religious speech.