Protecting the Separation of Religion and Government in the Build Back Better Act

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The constitutional protections that Interfaith Alliance defends are sometimes challenged in unlikely places. Even for those charged with the responsibility of ensuring the smooth functioning of the legislative process, the words “budget reconciliation” can provoke a yawn. But when well-intentioned provisions threaten to scuttle carefully established barriers to inappropriate spending, advocates inside and outside of government must sound the alarm.

The Build Back Better Act proposes a broader definition of infrastructure than the usual roads, sewers, and bridges. Among the investments of public funds is in childcare, an essential resource for working families.  The Act contains provisions that enable childcare providers to modernize, renovate, or improve their facilities. Consistent with longstanding federal requirements, all eligible providers may apply for these grants – including both secular and religiously affiliated groups.

But these types of grant programs can, if not carefully monitored, enable private institutions to use public money for religious activities. The chairs of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Richard Neal, and the House Committee on Education and Labor, Bobby Scott, have inserted language in the bill that seeks to ensure that these funds not be used for purposes beyond their intended purpose. For instance, using these funds to replace the roof of a church or restore a synagogue’s sanctuary would be considered a misuse of taxpayer dollars even if both institutions host a daycare center onsite.

In the past, some religious groups have challenged restrictions on government funding by claiming discrimination against them. The courts have made clear that, while funding cannot be denied on the basis of the religious character of an institution, funding must be considered on the basis of its proposed usage. In other words, it is not who the institution or an applicant is, rather what they propose to do with taxpayer dollars.

Without this clarification, this small and unintentional crack in the wall of separation between religion and government might well be used as precedent to chip away at the constitutional standards appropriately in place. Interfaith Alliance joined faith-based and religious freedom partners in thanking Chairmen Neal and Scott for their work to ensure that the institutions of religion and government maintain a healthy separation. 

Read the full letter, signed by African American Ministers in Action; Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC); Bend the Arc: Jewish Action;  Interfaith Alliance; National Council of Jewish Women; People For the American Way; and Union for Reform Judaism.