ACLU Urges Congress to Oppose Taxpayer Funding of Church Construction; Hearing Comes on Heels of Faith-Based Defeat in Senate

April 28, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged lawmakers to oppose a proposed federal rule change that would allow taxpayer money, currently earmarked for single parent aid and housing for the homeless, to fund physical construction of churches and other religious buildings.

“”The unequivocal rejection of the President’s faith-based plan in the Senate earlier this month is proof positive that the general thrust of this country is against funding religion with tax dollars,”” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”This program should be no exception — it takes federal money that is serving the neediest in our society and diverts it to the bricks-and-mortar construction of 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,”” Anders added.

The House Financial Services Committee’s Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Robert Ney (R-OH), is set to discuss the rule change at a hearing this afternoon. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), Ranking Member on the full Financial Services Committee, asked for the hearing.

The proposed policy shift would impact programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was slipped in under the radar last December as an obscure provision in the Federal Register. 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.

Much of the money would be funneled from single parent aid, homeless housing and programs for AIDS patients.

Today’s hearing comes less than a month after the Senate skewered much of the President’s faith-based initiative — a centerpiece of his 2000 Presidential platform — because of civil rights objections. In a 95 to 5 vote on April 9, the Senate passed a version of the faith-based bill that both removed provisions that would have granted special preferences to religious groups receiving taxpayer money and included a new $1.4 billion dollar social service block grant, a provision favored by Senate Democrats and opposed by the White House.

The final bill also contained a series of tax breaks designed to spur charitable giving and funds for technical assistance to small charities that often have trouble negotiating the federal grant process. The ACLU considers the compromise bill a significant affirmation of the importance of basic civil liberties – the organization was a key player in the Hill negotiations that resulted ultimately in the non-controversial bill.

“”The President got his hat handed to him with the Senate faith-based compromise,”” Anders said. “”He didn’t have the votes because the country is not ready to throw out the Constitution, civil rights laws and allow federally-funded religious discrimination.””

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