Churches, synagogues, temples and other houses of worship are in general excluded from receiving grants after natural disasters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The New York Times reported Jan. 3.
While many private nonprofits qualify for federal disaster assistance grants, including zoos, museums, performing arts centers and libraries, houses of worship are not on the list, despite the fact that the U.S. has ruled previously that some religiously affiliated institutions, such as schools and hospitals, can get the grants, the Times said.
For example, when Hurricane Sandy flooded St. George Malankara Orthodox Church of India in New Dorp, Staten Island, N.Y., the basement was ruined and windows and doors were severely damaged.
Rev. Alex K. Joy, the Indian American vicar of the church, petitioned FEMA for a grant to help with an estimated $150,000 in rebuilding expenses.
“FEMA said that they considered the church a business, so they offered us a loan,” he told the Times. “But we don’t want a loan. We have 400 members, 90 families. In this situation, we need some assistance.”
There are efforts to change the law. In December, outgoing Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut introduced an amendment to the Hurricane Sandy recovery appropriations bill to explicitly place houses of worship on the list of qualified organizations. The amendment never reached a vote, however.
Congresswoman Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who represents the congressional district adjacent to St. John’s, has also called for federal funds to be allowed for houses of worship damaged by Sandy.
In addition, Jewish groups, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee, are lobbying for the effort, the Times reported.
Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Institute for Public Affairs at the Orthodox Union, said he is working with legislators to add an amendment to the bill before it comes again before Congress.
"Houses of worship should not be discriminated against and excluded from getting assistance on the same terms as other eligible nonprofits,” he told the Times.
Diament has met with officials of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to see if the change can be made without legislative action. FEMA rules don’t mention houses of worship, so a bureaucratic decision may be all that is required, he opined.
The issue is controversial, because the constitutional separation of church and state generally bans the use of tax money to build religious institutions.
Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times that the ACLU has “serious concerns” about changing the policy and is monitoring the situation.
The ban on FEMA grants for houses of worship isn’t complete. Churches, temples and synagogues may apply for reimbursement for social services they provided, including homeless shelters, preschools, etc. Houses of worship can also qualify for low-interest SBA loans.
Joy told the Times that he spoke with President Obama about the issue during the president’s visit to Staten Island in November. He said his church reopened for Christmas solely with private donations. The church did not have insurance to cover the damage, he added.