ACLU Blasts New Bush Policy Allowing Construction Of Religious Buildings With Taxpayer Dollars

January 23, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today criticized a federal policy change proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that will allow religious groups to use taxpayer dollars — previously set aside to house single parents, the homeless and people with AIDS — to finance the construction and renovation of their houses of worship.

“This is probably the most clearly unconstitutional aspect of the White House’s faith-based initiative that we’ve seen up to this point,” said Christopher E. Anders, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “What this does is take federal money that is serving the neediest of the needy in our society and diverts it to the bricks-and-mortar construction of churches and sanctuaries and other places of worship.”

The proposed policy shift was slipped under the radar as an obscure provision in the Federal Register last month. The rule change would turn on its head a long-standing prohibition against public funds being used to finance the construction or renovation of religious buildings. The new policy would allow religious groups to receive tax dollars to build or renovate religious worship centers, so long as part of the worship center is used for secular purposes.

Specifically, it allows a religious group to mathematically divide up a building into religious and secular components and, based on this formula, receive funding for the secular fraction.

The ACLU, noting the established legal precedent rejecting this funding approach and the new policy’s significant violations of the First Amendment, also said that the provision would give religious groups an unfair monetary leg up at the expense of the most needy in society. And, of paramount concern to the ACLU and other critics of the proposed rule change is the threat of mission creep: how would HUD be able to stop a religious group from using the taxpayer-financed, secular section of its building for religious purposes, once the agency has turned over the money?

The proposed rule change was unceremoniously included in volume 68, number 3 of the Federal Register on Monday, January 6, 2003 – a set of proposed rule changes designed to implement parts of a recent executive order from the President establishing his faith-based initiative, which he was unable to pass through Congress last year.

“This goes beyond simple First Amendment questions,” Anders said. “It is wrong for President Bush to subsidize houses of worship with taxpayer funds when he and Congress cannot even find enough money to meet the housing needs of ordinary Americans crunched by a worsening economy.”

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