North Carolina’s newly passed state budget includes nearly $26 million in funding for religious organizations, ranging from direct grants to individual churches to funds for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.
Among the top recipients are groups that have come under scrutiny in the past for improperly using federal funds and allegedly providing pregnant women with misleading information about abortion.
Republicans, who have a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, have enacted far-reaching conservative policies this session, overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes a whopping 19 times. The budget itself is an example of the GOP’s power, as top leaders secured earmarks in their districts and groups supporting Republican priorities received hefty grants.
Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, questioned why Christian groups with conservative ideologies were funded, while groups like hers, which support progressive causes, were not.
“How did these particular organizations and churches and schools get selected out of all of the potential organizations, churches and schools in North Carolina to receive this funding?” she said. “… Even before that, I have a hard time with taxpayer dollars supporting particular religious agendas.”
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
Faith-based groups are generally prohibited from using federal funds for religious activities, like worship or proselytism, but things are murkier with state funding.
The state constitution does not expressly prohibit the use of state funds for religious purposes, but does require that government spending be used for “public purposes only.” The state Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that activities funded by the government must benefit all members of the public, not a select few.
The budget, which passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly last month after months of delayed negotiations, does include language saying that “directed grants to nonprofit organizations are for nonsectarian, nonreligious purposes only.”
The budget appears to only include money for Christian religious organizations, lacking funding for any Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist groups. Most of these groups, however, purport to serve anyone, regardless of religion.
“Christian-based organizations are fulfilling needs for the most desperate in our communities and are able to provide personal attention with a compassionate approach unlike government run services,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative N.C. Values Coalition, said in a statement to The News & Observer. “Groups who object to this funding want the state to discriminate against religious groups simply because of their faith.”
In a 2017 case, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a church in Missouri that was denied public funding for being a religious organization. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that this violated the First Amendment and that states could not exclude churches from aid programs so long as those programs are neutral and secular.