In a breach of etiquette that exhibits a gross misunderstanding of the American Experiment, President Trump interjected his erroneous legal opinion about an ongoing federal lawsuit over whether churches should be eligible to receive taxpayer funds to rebuild after natural disasters. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is condemning his move and the lawsuit itself.
As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, Trump tweeted that churches hit by Hurricane Harvey should receive federal funds to rebuild. Such funding is prohibited under the secular U.S. Constitution, but the Becket Fund, a religious lobbying outfit, has sued the federal government on behalf of some Texas churches. FFRF and other groups opposed similar funding after Sandy struck New York and New Jersey and it ultimately went nowhere.
"The government can help many individuals and nonprofits rebuild, but not churches. It is a founding principal of our nation that citizens may not be taxed in support of religion and churches," explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Churches want all the benefits of state/church separation, such as receiving tax-deductible contributions, but none of the burdens that come with it.
"Churches don't pay taxes. Why should they get access to taxpayer funds?" asks FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Churches also receive preferential treatment from the IRS. They are exempted from providing the annual and onerous Form 990 tax return that every other 501(c)(3) nonprofit must file in order to retain tax exemption. Therefore churches are financial and informational black holes, with no accountability.
FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, also a constitutional attorney, points out that the Supreme Court's recent Trinity Lutheran decision should not help the Texas churches' lawsuit: "Here, the money would be used to rebuild churches themselves, not to prevent children from getting scraped knees; direct funding of churches has never been permitted under our Constitution."
Trump is not only wrong on the law but wrong as president to interject an opinion into an ongoing lawsuit, something previous presidents have avoided and which honors constitutional separation of powers. This unfortunate use of a presidential podium may encourage Florida or Puerto Rican churches to file similar claims in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is litigating a similar case before the New Jersey Supreme Court over Morris County's (N.J.) historical grant program, which funds the building and repair of churches. FFRF's legal challenge notes such funding is in violation of the state Constitution, which reads: "nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship. . ."