Religious leaders have joined together to fight the HHS contraception mandate since its announcement, claiming it infringes on their religious freedom. HHS has recently issued another revision in an attempt to accommodate religious institutions; but in a letter outlining his concerns earlier this month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had this to say:
“It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education and Catholic charities. HHS offers what it calls an ‘accommodation’ rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches.”
Now it seems, these ministries and their “integral parts” are seeking to not be exempted from federal funds to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and the U.S. House has passed a bill to accommodate them. The Hill reports:
The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to let churches, mosques, synagogues and temples apply for taxpayer-funded disaster aid.
The bill, from Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), is a reaction to FEMA’s policy of denying disaster aid grants to houses of worship, even though it allows grants to religious-affiliated groups.
“It’s unconscionable that foundational pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy — synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other house of worship — have been categorically denied access to these otherwise generally available relief funds,” Smith said during debate on the bill. “Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory, and may even suggest hostility to religion.”
There we go with the “hostility to religion” stuff; yes, that’s what it is, it couldn’t be the fact that these institutions have contributed nothing in the way of taxes toward FEMA’s disaster funds.
NPR reports (my emphasis):
More than 200 houses of worship damaged in Superstorm Sandy have applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency…
Religious institutions are considered ineligible according to FEMA regulations. But if they run a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, or if they have community activities that are nonsectarian, they may be considered for federal aid.
In the NPR report, Nathan Diament, Executive Director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs claims:
“If the government is giving out money to nonprofits on a neutral basis, the government does not have to go out of its way to exclude religion or religious institutions from participating in that program.”
Which is precisely the argument being made in the contraception debate, and as the New Republic pointed out in an article last year:
In addition to the tax breaks to which all nonprofit institutions are entitled, Catholic hospitals also receive taxpayer dollars via public insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, as well as myriad federal programs that provide extra subsidies for such things as indigent care and medical research…
As constitutional scholar Robert Natelson explains:
The HHS rule applies to employers as a class (except churches per se). It does not single out institutions affiliated with religion. In the words of the Supreme Court, it is a “neutral and generally applicable” rule.
The point is, church leaders need to quit moving the goal posts. They can’t cite First Amendment neutrality as an argument to receive aid, while simultaneously denying it applies in the healthcare mandate.