No/Yes to government funding of churches

The secular world is amping up its call for restrictions on religion, but this past week they lost the battle over government funding of churches.

I found an urgent email in my inbox a few days ago from the Secular Coalition of America.  They urged me to email my congressman and ask him to vote no to HR 592, The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013:

Despite its unconstitutionality, lawmakers tomorrow will consider HR 592—a bill to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, to allow houses of worship to directly receive taxpayer dollars.

There’s a reason houses of worship are prohibited. This bill would reverse years of Supreme Court precedent and directly conflict with the First Amendment to the Constitution. Additionally, permitting public grants for churches and other houses of worship would unfairly privilege religious institutions above secular institutions, many of which are not eligible for the grants.

This bill is primarily to help the disaster relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. It will provide aid to church buildings damaged in the storm as well as churches that are instrumental in rebuilding the community. But depending on what side of the secular line you are standing, this may or may not be a step in the right direction.

The amendment to the bill will look like this:

“(C) HOUSES OF WORSHIP. – A church, synagogue  mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, shall be eligible for contribution under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

But while the secularists were in strict opposition to the amendment, many religious organizations couldn’t be happier. Many of these organizations have been in direct contact with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and are acutely aware of the need for government funding to rebuild as well as help their communities. Much like the Coalition, the Jewish Press pleaded with its viewers to contact their representatives and urge a yes vote on HR 592.

After Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New York City and the surrounding communities last fall, many synagogues and other houses of worship became distribution centers for material goods and spiritual relief to those affected.  Many of those buildings sustaining enormous damage from the storm.  But because those types of non-profits are not specifically mentioned in the authorizing legislation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been unwilling to provide them with available relief funds.

The HR 592 bill was voted on by congress on Sept. 13 and passed with an overwhelming vote of 354-72. It was a bipartisan decision that will have religious organizations throughout disaster areas falling to their knees in praise. But the secular society is less than amused. After receiving the plea for no votes, 2,500 letters were sent, causing 12 representative to change their yay’s to nay’s. But it was far from enough.

Should the government provide aid to churches? Will this start the government down the path of monetary influence over church function and practices? According the Bill the money is not to be used for the “primary religious use of the facility.” But secularists see this as simply one more way for the church is being tied into government, thus breaking down the wall of separation between church and state.

But Christopher Smith, R-N.J., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, would say this is about something more than the separation of church and state. It’s about not discriminating against people and organizations when they are brought to their weakest moments:

“Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind. It’s about those who helped feed, comfort, clothe and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant.”

There’s a new girl on campus

Via AZCentral.com

She’s a Jack/Jane of all minorities. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, is a bisexual, secularist and a former Mormon. She supports gay marriage, abortion rights, marijuana and science education. In other words, she is a poster-child for the secularist movement.

The Secular Coalition of America has taken her under their wing and claimed her as a fitting successor for Rep. Peter Stark, a Democrat from Calif, and the only open atheist in congress. He lost in this years election, but his secularist presence was soon filled by Sinema.

Lauren Anderson Youngblood, the Coalitions communications manager, told Religion News Service how proud they were to receive Sinema into Congress:

She was able to run openly as a nontheist and it didn’t seem to be an issue. That is a great thing for the community, especially because with the loss of Pete Stark, we are left with a big hole.

Time will tell what work Sinema will be able to do in Congress, and how much she will live up to the secularists expectations. But the religious groups in Congress will be sure to watch her, as she will no doubt oppose many of their proposals.

Proactive nones

This past Tuesday I listened in on a conference call hosted by the Secular Coalition of America. Other secular groups were present, such as the Freethinkers and America United.

Among other things, what impressed me the most was the proactive spirit. They discussed the Nov. 6 election, the changes to congress, the defeat of Amendment 8 in Florida, as well as the disproportionate nature of the House in regards to the religious demographics of the United States. All in all it was a well set up meeting, with a variety of input from it’s constituents.

They were civil, eager to move forward with their wins over the election, but also looking for ways to improve based on their losses. One may hear the same type of talk come out of a Christian meeting about politics, simply with a different end goal.

But the nones are motivated, they are making headway throughout many realms of congress and the popular vote. I think it can properly be said that they are a force to be reckoned with and it is no hidden fact that Christians and nones share vastly different values. Therefore, they will clash on many occasions, but if Christians are going to come out on top they need to be even more motivated than the confidant nones.

Should we have more nones in Congress?

Via the CNN Belief Blog

For the second time since 2007 we have a religiously unaffiliated, or none, in Congress. Newly elected Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema claimed her none status for the Pew Forum’s recent survey of faith in the 113th Congress. Sinema’s presents isn’t really that much of a change however, because California Congressman Peter Stark was a public non-theist since 2007. He lost this years election, leaving Sinema as the lone none.

Stephen Prothero, writing a recent article in CNN’s Belief Blog, picked up on this, saying that the small increase of religious diversity in congress is not an adequate mirror of the religious diversity throughout America.

For all the talk of the election of 2012 inaugurating a new era in American politics, Protestants will continue to be over represented on Capitol Hill, where they will account for 56% of our representatives versus only 48% of American adults.

However, what seems to be swept under the rug by Prothero is the concept that members of congress are voted into office by the American population. He is frustrated at the lack of diversity, but like it or not, these are the people voters wanted in office. And is this such a bad thing?

The lack of nones in Congress says something interesting about the change of values in America. If, as the election and recent surveys seem to suggest, citizens are increasingly unaffiliated, why is the majority of congress still Christian? They were voted in by the American population, but so many were, and still are, heralding this election as the turning point in American values.

Greta Christina praised the advancement of the unaffiliated movement in her blog post, published soon after the election.

This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won. Atheists are not in opposition to American values. Atheists are on the cutting edge of them.

I do believe the election is a picture of where America is going, but we simply can’t ignore the fact that 56 percent of congress is Christian because Americans voted them in that way.  It wasn’t because of white supremacists  or the lofty 1 percent, or even because of Republicans – it was because that is what the people wanted. But Prothero says the lack of diversity in Congress is unacceptable.

This data shows that the much heralded “new America” is still years away. Yes, the Senate will be 20% female, but women are more than 50% of the population. And the U.S. Congress will still be far more Christian (87%) than U.S. adults as a whole (70%).

It’s getting to the point where people like Prothero wont stop at accusing members of state, religious groups or political conservatives of bigotry. Now he has gone on to accuse the American public of favoring the religious right.

Via the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life

So, for as “advanced” as Americans seemed to be after the election, it turns out that many of them still cling to the old ways. But this attachment to traditionalism is a prime example of the split in American values:

At least 70 percent, if not more, of Americans would say that a Christian/Protestant majority in Congress is a good thing. It means biblical values will be fought for and will win more than secular values, thus keeping American values from changing, at least for now. 

vs. 

At least 20 percent of Americans claim more unaffiliated congressmen is a small step in the right direction, but there is still far to go. The further America gets out from under the thumb of religious principles in politics the better.

Prothero’s comment, “when it comes to religion, the U.S. Congress doesn’t yet look like the voters who are sending them to Washington,” is true. However, what this seems to be saying is that American values are more complex than what is uncovered in a survey or an election. Perhaps voters are focusing on more than just religious conviction. Or perhaps when it came down to it, voters simply liked more of what they saw in the Christian candidate than the other guy. Which would suggest that American values come in line more with Religious/Protestant than with the unaffiliated.

Either way, it is obvious that voters put the people they wanted into congress, and Prothero should simply try and accept that this is the way America is, without turning it into a hostile takeover by the religious politicians.