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They do not have to abide by certain civil rights laws and can, for example, discriminate in hiring, so that the Orthodox shul can’t be subject to a lawsuit if it doesn’t hire the lesbian rabbi. These institutions do not have to disclose the salaries of their top officials or other information about their financial operations, and are allowed to bypass the public transparency required of other tax-exempt groups.
These protections aren’t just niceties. They acknowledge the special role religion plays in our society, and prevent government from becoming excessively entangled in the practices of these faith institutions, precisely what the First Amendment is supposed to guarantee.
Like any privilege in this society, however, this specialness can be abused — and it has been, by clergy who earn fantastic sums of money without any obligation of disclosure, for instance. Or, in a more generous light, these protections allow faith institutions to ignore certain norms and expectations of society — by openly discriminating according to gender, race or sexuality, for another example.
Tax-exempt organizations are so designated because they fulfill a secular purpose for the good of us all. The doctrine of neutrality obligates faith institutions to use public money for secular purposes, too: to restore the street facade of a synagogue but not its sanctuary; to fix the ordinary, not the sacred. But where to draw the line?
That question has bedeviled the federal government’s faith-based initiative ever since it was created in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. And if the Obama administration extends the purview of FEMA to include houses of worship, the difficulty of drawing the line will be there, too. How do you avoid using public money for a pervasively religious purpose when helping a synagogue that exists for a pervasively religious purpose?
And if the trend continues and expands, allowing churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to apply for more and more federal funding, will their position of distinctiveness be diminished? Will they be entangled with more paperwork, more government oversight and more pressure to conform to the norms and practices of other nonprofits?
Our hearts go out to the suffering congregations, and it’s impossible to say they shouldn’t receive the kind of help only government is able to provide. But context matters. History matters. These FEMA grants could be a one-time, extraordinary measure, or could be another step in a fraught process that moves the boundary between religion and state to an unwelcome place.