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Should Religious Orgs Get FEMA Assistance?

Libraries, museums and other non-profits receive assistance. Why not houses of worship?

A group of Jewish organizations has launched a campaign aimed at getting Congress to include synagogues and other houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy amongst the non-profit organizations that qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, reported The New York Times.

Currently, a long list of non-profit organizations affected by Hurricane Sandy qualifies for grants, including schools, museums and libraries. But houses of worship, which are also non-profit, do not.

Why?

Well, for one, the constitutional separation of church and state forbids the use of taxpayers' money to build religious institutions. This law has remained steadfast and transparent over the years-- so much so even the American Civil Liberties Union has backed away from the notion it should change.

“To rebuild houses of worship is a form of compelled support for religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against,” Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the ACLU, told the Times. “We understand and identify with the serious difficulties everyone is facing, but we can’t let this misfortune be used as a premise to erode these bedrock principles.”

However, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee, disagree. They argue that to build is quite different than to re-build, particularly when it results from something entirely out of one's control, such as a national weather disaster.

In fact, the UJA feels so strongly about the need to make such an exception, it is encouraging leaders at damaged synagogues – about 40 in total across New York City—to continue applying for grants before the deadline, just in case the rule changes.

And their argument had traction most recently when an amendment to include houses of worship amongst the list of qualified organizations for FEMA assistance was introduced last month by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn) in the multibillion-dollar Hurricane Sandy recovery appropriations bill.

The bill was on its way to the floor, but the amendment was taken out at the last minute as a part of bi-partisan deal concerning an unrelated provision. Then to make matters worse, Lieberman’s tenure in the Senate ended this week.

However, Nathan Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Institute for Public Affairs at the Orthodox Union, has vowed to continue to working with lawmakers to get the amendment reinstated before it came again before Congress.

What do you think? Should houses of worship be included in the list of non-profit organizations that are eligible to receive assistance following damage from Hurricane Sandy?

Joe Gonzalez January 04, 2013 at 10:39 PM
No religious institution should be asking for or receiving public funds. Tue aforementioned faith groups want taxpayes money for opening or reopening faith buildings so they can practice their faith. That differs markedly from getting public funds to provide public services to anybody in need such as a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Moreover, I note the above faith groups and others down thru the years have repeatedly fought other largely diwfavoed faith groups from getting public money.
Elizabeth White January 05, 2013 at 04:11 PM
There is a big difference between museums/libraries and houses of worship. Whether you use them or not, museums/libraries are open to the entire community. Churches provide for their own congregations, as indeed they should, since their congregations are the ones that pay for them. Maybe when I see faith groups open to all, even those whose principles they abhor, I'll rethink my position, but I doubt it. Taxpayers should not be providing public funds to religious institutions.

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