March 2013 Church & State | People & Events

The House of Representatives voted Feb. 13 to allow houses of worship to seek funding for repairs and reconstruction through a federal program designed to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

The storm caused massive damage to several East Coast states in late October. Many homes were destroyed, and Congress set to work on an aid package to help those in need.

Congress originally passed the $51 billion aid package without including assistance to houses of worship. But the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the American Jewish Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied Congress to change the rules and allow houses of worship to apply for direct support.

Subsequently, U.S. Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to change regulations promulgated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has traditionally not awarded grants for repair of buildings used primarily for worship.

Americans United organized opposition to HR 592. AU pointed out that houses of worship were not being singled out for unfair treatment. In fact, many secular non-profits also did not receive government aid. (In addition, many affected religious institutions were eligible to receive low-interest Small Business Administration loans.)

“A fundamental rule of American life is that congregants, not the taxpayers, pay for the construction and repair of houses of worship,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a media statement. “We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state.”

The Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Interfaith Alliance, the Secular Coalition for America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Hindu American Foundation all agreed with AU’s view.

The House tally, however, was lopsided. Members voted 354-72 to make the change and allow houses of worship to apply for the aid.

During debate on the House floor, U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) rose to defend church-state separation.

The bill now goes to the Senate.