Your government is funding houses of worship. Here’s why no one noticed.

Piles of ruined books from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. The congregation lost many of its prayer books during Hurricane Harvey and replenished them through donations. (Courtesy of United Orthodox Synagogues)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President George W. Bush’s first act as president, on Jan. 29, 2001, was to open an office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Church-state separations that had hindered such partnerships, he said in a statement, were “inherently unfair.”

Jewish groups, civil libertarians and Democrats immediately raised concerns, and the Bush administration soon dispatched the office’s then-director, John DiIulio, to a Jewish conference to make the office’s case and note that money would not directly assist churches and synagogues. Critics remained skeptical.

Fast forward 17 years: Congress passed a law last month that would allow federal disaster relief to go straight to churches and synagogues. President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan bill, ensuring that houses of worship and secular nonprofit organizations are treated equally when applying for disaster through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Hardly anyone blinked. At least two Jewish groups unnerved by Bush’s actions welcomed the law, and the legislation included Democratic sponsors.

What happened? Interviews with a range of Jewish officials suggested a number of factors:

Barack Obama, a Democrat, embraced the idea of partnering government with faith-based groups.

“Certainly from the Bush years and through the Obama years, it became a more consensus principle that it’s appropriate in certain concepts for government to partner with religious groups and even in providing religious groups funding,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, among the minority of Jewish organizations that welcomed Bush’s 2001 initiative.

Once Obama had secured the nomination, in July 2008, he pivoted to embracing Bush’s initiative, although Democrats had assumed that any Democratic president would scrap the Faith-Based office.

“Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea — so long as we follow a few basic principles,” Obama said in a speech in Zanesville, Ohio. He outlined two principles the Bush office already observed: Do not use the money to proselytize, and spend it on strictly secular programs, like child care or addiction recovery.

It was a political win-win.

“There was no political cost to be paid” by Obama in backing faith-based partnerships, said Marc Stern, the general counsel for the American Jewish Committee. AJC opposed Bush’s office in 2001, but more recently lobbied to advance the disaster relief bill. Stern said Democrats were going to vote for Obama anyway, and Obama as the nominee had to tack to the center.

Additionally Obama, with his past as a community worker in a troubled Chicago neighborhood, had experienced the benefits of partnering with churches to alleviate strife.

“He disappointed the strict church-state separationists,” Diament recalled.

Obama once in office sweetened the deal for liberals, inviting them to join a 25-person advisory council (including three Jews) that tinkered for two years on recommendations that would protect the Faith-Based office from violating constitutional separations.

Under Trump, the office has been moribund, but he has aggressively embraced many of its principles. Just a month before the disaster aid bill had passed, he used his executive powers to remove the restrictions.

It’s a short leap from security to disaster aid.

Diament has led the charge for decades to direct more funding toward religious institutions. Activists like Diament have worked doggedly to codify the changes into permanent law in Congress — and they have picked their battles well.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Federations of North America joined in advocating for nonprofit security grants, which reinforce protections for religious organizations. The program was launched under Bush in 2005. More than 90 percent of the grants have gone to Jewish buildings.

“Assistance for security is different than assistance for some other things,” Diament said, explaining why the grants encountered little resistance. “It’s become a more pragmatic conversation than an ideological one.”

A key backer of the security grant program was Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., now retired, who had a sizable Orthodox Jewish constituency in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Employees inside the FEMA Command Center in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It looks bad to let houses of worship remain in shambles.

“The era when a synagogue is next door to a Kmart, where both of them are damaged by a tornado, and Kmart can have its roof replaced by FEMA emergency funds and a synagogue cannot is anachronistic,” said William Daroff, currently the Washington director of the JFNA. (JFNA’s predecessor, United Jewish Communities, in 2001 also opposed the Bush faith-based initiative.)

Democrats need religious voters.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the FEMA legislation, was brought up as a devout Christian and has a substantial Orthodox constituency in her Queens district. Those elements made the legislation a no-brainer, she said.

“As a representative of a diverse and multicultural neighborhood, people needed to know their government is there for them regardless of their faith,” she said. (Meng’s district was hard hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, right before she assumed office). “We in the Democratic Party need to do a better job of reaching out to people in the faith community.”

Meng noted that her bill included constitutional protections: Money could not go to “church pews and Bibles” but to secular services provided by a house of worship.

It’s not 1952.

Daroff said that much of the Jewish opposition to church-state partnerships derived from anxieties about majority privilege that have long since subsided.

“There was an era when Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods, Jewish doctors could not practice in certain hospitals,” he said. “We’ve evolved as a country and we don’t need to be as fearful of government or of intrusion.”

Abba Cohen, who heads the Washington office of Agudah, the haredi Orthodox interest group that advocated for nonprofit security grants and the FEMA grants, said hostility toward religion is abating.

“Society and the courts are rejecting absolutist policies of the past that too often evinced a hostility toward religion and religious institutions,” he said in an email. “There is an understanding that there is a need for a more balanced, more reasoned approach — one that looks to fairness and rejects discrimination against religious community organizations simply because they are religious.”

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court has persisted since 1971, and it has left its imprint on church-state separations. Most recently, last year, the court ruled 7-2 that a church may receive government funds for secular purposes — in that case, repaving a playground. Court rulings, Diament noted, tend to shape the overall debate by signaling to partisans what is winnable and what is not. He said he did not expect a fight on the FEMA law.

“To take an extreme position on that would be at odds with Supreme Court’s understanding of the constitution,” he said.

It ain’t over til it’s over.

Advocates for church-state separation acknowledge the gains of those wanting increased church-state partnerships — but they say it may be deceptive, and fleeting, a side effect of a politically liberal community that is preoccupied battling so much else associated with the Trump administration.

David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League’s religious freedom counsel, said popular opposition to eroding church-state separations persists. He pointed to a 2012 ballot initiative in Florida– a “purple” state representative of national trends — that would have removed state restrictions on funding for religious institutions. It failed 55-45 percent.

“We have a large constituency that has never been comfortable with” government funding for houses of worship, he said.

Stern of the AJC also said that the issue was likely not dead and buried: He noted that the FEMA bill, despite having Democratic lead sponsors, had trouble attracting Democratic co-sponsors in both chambers. Meng is the sole Democrat sponsoring the House bill, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was the sole Democrat on the Senate version.

Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi who leads the Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of faith groups that backs vigorous church-state separations, said the issues that have galvanized separationists in the past would continue to engage them. For example, houses of worship may come to regret the new policy.

“Even though a house of worship may think that accepting money after a flood is an appropriate grant, the government now has a reason to look into the funding of a house of worship because of federal funds,” he said.

Another issue is how the money is used for hiring purposes, Barkey said: Would houses of worship reject contractors or fire staffers who did not adhere to certain religious beliefs or practices?

“Even houses of worship acting with the best of intentions may use the money for unconstitutional purposes,” Barkey said.

Diament said he was not letting his guard down.

“In advocacy, you need to be very patient,” he said, contemplating the 17-year trajectory from the Bush office to the FEMA bill. “It can take decades.”