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(RNS) As Congress began writing legislation last spring to give businesses and homeowners tax incentives to make their homes more environmentally friendly, Nathan Diament looked at the legislation and saw a hole.
Director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, Diament successfully pushed the sponsors of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which the House passed in June, to include provisions that allowed synagogues, churches and other non-profit groups to seek federal subsidies as well.
It is not the first time Diament has lobbied lawmakers to remember the unique concerns of houses of worship. In recent years, he has targeted funding for religious schools that teach individuals with disabilities and money for upgrades against security threats.
Diament is often in the crosshairs of the church and state debate when federal funding is involved. As the Washington representative for more than 1,000 Orthodox Jewish synagogues, he is able to speak the language of both the wider American Jewish community and religious conservatives. During President George W. Bush’s administration, he was often the lone Jewish voice at the table discussing faith-based initiatives, since many other Jewish groups opposed the program because of church-state concerns.
Now Diament is fond of discussing his days at Harvard Law School with President Obama, and their time together on the pickup basketball court. He serves on the current White House’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Diament says his organization is concerned about the separation of church and state. “We would never seek government funding for the direct funding of religious activities,” he said. But programs like environmental retrofitting are not religious, he said.
Diament insists he is not seeking earmarks, which provide funds for specific facilities. Instead, he says, he is leveling the playing field, insuring religious institutions and other non-profit sites have access to the same government dollars as corporations and private citizens.
“Our goal is to insure that the institutions in our faith community get their fair share and equitable treatment when the government decides to put certain policies into place and to fund certain activities,” Diament said.
But it is a controversial position, at times stretching the boundaries that separate church and state. As a result, several leading religious organizations have pressed their houses of worship to not seek the federal funding Diament has helped garner.
“There are ways to work it out so that it is constitutionally permissible,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Even so, we advise Southern Baptists not to take the money. Sooner or later, the government is going to come in and tell you how to do your business because you’re getting government money.”
Diament recently worked with interfaith partners in seeking money for non-profit sites to improve security. The Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which passed in the House earlier this month, included $19 million in grants for high-risk, non-profit facilities.
Similar allocations in recent years have gone predominantly to Jewish institutions, which are seen as potential targets for a terrorist attack. This year, a gunman killed a security guard at the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and law enforcement officials thwarted a terrorist plot aimed at a New York synagogue.
The OU also vocally supported the Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that allowed parochial schools to receive government vouchers. They argued the funds were being given to the individuals to make an independent choice between public and religious schools, rather than to the schools directly.
“It’s no different than someone getting their Social Security check and endorsing it over to a synagogue,” Diament said.
But others see a fine line.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said money allocated for synagogues or other houses of worship, as in the energy bill, is problematic, no matter the purpose.
“We have made it clear in Congress that we don’t like most of the reiterations of these retrofit programs because we think there is applicable constitutional law that tax dollars cannot be used to construct or renovate religious buildings,” Lynn said.
Diament has amassed a wide coalition of religious groups in support of the retrofitting money, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the United Jewish Communities. But often, his organization has taken the lead.
“We are probably the most comfortable doing this,” Diament said.
“We’re willing to go after them.”
Lynn says Diament has pioneered the idea of finding avenues for houses of worship to garner federal funds, but is hardly the only constituency benefiting from it.
“There are Christian groups that have jumped on this bandwagon, especially in regard to environmental changes,” he said. “Nathan is extremely good at what he does, but I wish he wasn’t doing some of this.”
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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