Legendary Democrat operative and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel articulated a rule his partisans have long followed: “You never want a serious crisis go to waste.” He went on to explain, “What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Conservatives have slammed the strategy as cynical, but no one has denied its effectiveness.
Sometimes Democrats have seized on legitimate and unforeseen incidents, such as the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, to ram through long-desired but irrelevant financial regulations and the unpreparedness and obstinacy of local governments in Hurricane Katrina to mar the Bush administration with charges of racism and incompetence. Other times they have invented crises out of whole cloth, such as the “health care crisis” that no one considered a crisis until Barack Obama insisted they must and the “immigration crisis” as a euphemism to refer, not to the massive annual influx of illegal aliens into the country, but rather to the dubious legal status of those individuals already here.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma present an opportunity for President Trump and Republicans to use the Rahm Rule for good. The Federal Emergency Management Agency currently bans granting funds to churches and other religious organization on the basis that such grants would violate the First Amendment prohibition against “establishment of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true, and the current policy of offering emergency relief funds to merely those civic organizations that toe the secular religious line constitute precisely the discrimination FEMA ostensibly seeks to avoid.
As the New York Post editorial board points out, the Supreme Court ruled just this year in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that religious organizations have the same right as secular non-profits to funding from federal agencies. The Court was not even divided on the question, ruling 7-1 that the denial of a public benefit to an organization solely on the basis of its religious status is “odious to our Constitution.” Only Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee who defended her nomination to the Court by explaining that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” dissented.
President Trump on Friday night signalled his support for repealing FEMA’s anti-American policy, tweeting, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).” Trump, who has quietly been eliminating 16 federal regulations for every new rule added according to top White House officials, has the ability to rewrite agency regulations across the board. But to stop at FEMA would mean an opportunity wasted.
Trump should press onward for religious liberty in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma by citing the absurdity of FEMA’s religious discrimination to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which since 1954 has repressed the free speech rights of churches and other religious groups by tying their federal income tax exemption to a prohibition on political speech. The amendment, fittingly named after one of the sleaziest politicians in American history, might be summed up in a sentence: “That’s a nice treasury you’ve got there, Padre — sure would be a shame if something happened to it.”
The anti-American tax provision relies on the false premise that our Constitution prefers secular to traditional religion. It does not, and the only categorical distinctions between non-profits that promote “mindful awareness” and those that promote prayer to God are the metaphysical incoherence of the former and the insistence of the Founding Fathers and Framers of the Constitution on the latter.
President Trump already signed an executive order in May seeking to ease Johnson Amendment restrictions on religious liberty. If he seizes on this opportunity to go further and recodify these protections into law, Trump will fulfill a campaign promise, hush his critics who insist he lacks the negotiating ability to pass legislation, and achieve a victory that conservatives have sought for six decades. After a tough couple of months marked by the Senate’s failure to repeal Obamacare, delayed tax reform, and staff shakeups, such a deft and bold return to American founding principles would be “yuge.”