February 2013 Church & State | People & Events


A hurricane that brought wide­spread destruction to the East Coast in late October has sparked a campaign to get government aid to rebuild damaged houses of worship.

Hurricane Sandy pummeled New Jersey, New York and other Eastern states Oct. 29. The Category One hurricane made landfall along the New Jersey coastline and moved northward, doing an estimated $63 billion in property damage.

In the wake of the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began offering grants and other types of aid to homeowners and some nonprofits such as museums and libraries. But FEMA said no direct public funding would be made available to houses of worship.

The policy isn’t new; FEMA has traditionally excluded houses of worship from direct aid. Even the George W. Bush administration, famous for its “faith-based” initiative, drew the line at rebuilding churches after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

But this time FEMA’s policy drew fire from some religious groups that wanted outright grants to rebuild or repair storm-battered houses of worship.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee worked with former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) to try to amend a Hurricane Sandy relief bill to allow houses of worship to receive FEMA grants.

The effort was not successful, and Lieberman retired from the Senate in January. The two groups, however, are continuing the push, and the move is supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Nathan Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Institute for Public Affairs at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, told The New York Times, “Houses of worship should not be discriminated against and excluded from getting assistance on the same terms as other eligible nonprofits.”

About 40 synagogues plan to submit applications for aid to FEMA to test the policy. Some Christian churches may join them as well.

But not all Jewish groups agree that public funds should be made available. The Anti-Defamation League on Jan. 4 issued a statement expressing concern about direct taxpayer funding of houses of worship.

“It is not discriminatory to prohibit federal funds for rebuilding houses of worship, because the Constitution protects religious freedom by preventing the government from funding or endorsing any religion,” read a statement issued by Michael Lieberman of the ADL’s Washington, D.C., office. “A taxpayer should not have to fund a religion or a religious institution with which he or she disagrees.”

Americans United also opposes the funding, noting that it would lead to church-state lawsuits.

“I think that challenges would be inevitable if you started to reconstruct religious buildings with federal or state tax dollars,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told The Times.

The Times reported that houses of worship can apply for FEMA grants for social services that assist the public, such as homeless shelters and feeding programs. In addition, churches might qualify for low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration.

But some religious leaders want grants, which don’t have to be paid back.