‘Faith-Based’ Furnace?: Houses Of Worship Reap Tax-Funded Windfall From Stimulus Package

How does it help us all if a church, synagogue or temple gets a new air conditioning system?

Did you send a contribution to the Castleton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis so it could buy a new heating and cooling system?

You may think you didn’t – but you did. More accurately, your leaders in Washington, D.C., did it for you.

Politico reports today that at least $140 million of the $787 billion stimulus package passed in 2009 ended up in the coffers of “faith-based” groups – and that this was the result of deliberate effort by the administration of President Barack Obama.

“In an aggressive attempt at outreach, federal agencies, in conference calls and online seminars, instructed faith-based groups on how to apply for the grants, and federal officials sometimes stepped in when the state officials who distribute the money were reluctant to spend it on groups associated with churches and other religious establishments,” reported the D.C. newspaper.

Some of the money funded social-service programs and may be legal – if those programs are not saturated with sectarian content and serve a larger public interest.

In Harrisburg, Pa., Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area received $120,000 in stimulus money to pay for shelter and food for the homeless. Jackie Rucker, executive director of the group, remarked, “It kind of fell from the sky, and it was unbelievable that we had this much extra money.”

Actually it fell out of the taxpayers’ pocket. But as I said, it may be legal if it served a legitimate public (and secular) purpose by helping people in need.

But what is the public, secular purpose of putting new windows in a Roman Catholic school run by the Church of St. Laurence O’Toole in Laramie, Wyo.? How does it help us all if a church, synagogue or temple gets a new air conditioning system?

Some defenders of the payments have argued that such retrofitting does help everyone because it makes houses of worship more energy efficient. But under that logic, the government could tear down an old, drafty church and rebuild it at taxpayer expense.

We have to draw the line somewhere. And for a long time, that line was drawn where private religious interests began. Yes, a church could get a public grant to feed the hungry as long as it fed everyone, regardless of what they believe about God, and didn’t proselytize those in need. But when the church needs a new roof, it’s up to the congregation to raise private funds to pay for that.

As Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told Politico, “We believe that the heating and cooling of religious institutions is a job for the congregation, not the American taxpayer.”

That used to be a no-brainer. Houses of worship paid for their own upkeep and maintenance. But the steady flow of faith-based dollars (which are really taxpayer dollars) has blurred the line. That’s another reason why these programs are so dangerous.

Back when faith-based funding was first proposed, AU spoke out against it strongly. One of the arguments we raised was that once these funds started to flow, it would become increasingly difficult to control where they went.

Some of AU’s critics sneered that we were employing a “slippery slope” argument. Yes, we were. And now that America is on the slope sliding increasingly toward more and more forms of tax-supported religion, the view is not looking very good.