Shuls and other houses of worship damaged in natural disasters will now be eligible to receive relief funds from the federal government in keeping with a policy change announced last week by the administration.
The move reverses a long-held rule that barred such institutions from receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants, and comes as Congress is poised to pass legislation that will do just the same.
One of the many institutions that could stand to reap the benefits of the move is Houston’s largest shul, the United Orthodox Synagogues, which was flooded by up to seven feet of water in August during Hurricane Harvey, rendering most of the building unusable.
Its Rav, Rabbi Barry Gelman, told Hamodia that he and other shul leaders are presently working on new building plans for the congregation, and welcomed the move.
“We are still reviewing the policy and seeing how it would affect us, but it’s definitely a positive step,” he said. “Not only was the shul damaged, but it operated as a place for people to find safety. We didn’t give anybody a religious test and were open to all who came.”
Until now, religious organizations were only able to apply for funds if they could show that they would be used for a non-religious purpose. This issue was brought to the fore in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which caused extensive damage in Texas and Florida, respectively. President Donald Trump then signaled that he would support opening FEMA up to applications from houses of worship.
“Private, nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature,” read a statement released last week by the Department of Homeland Security-Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the grants.
The change was welcomed by Orthodox advocacy groups. Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director of the Agudath Israel of America, addressed the importance of the policy adjustment and the impact it could have.
“Unfortunately, unnecessary and unfair limitations placed specifically on houses of worship by FEMA have presented formidable challenges, precluding … relief,” he said. “Without the much-needed aid, they often face staggering costs that make rebuilding prohibitive.”
The Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, Nathan Diament, said the move corrected an old error on the part of the federal government.
“We thank the Trump administration for righting this long-time wrong and treating disaster- damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship fairly — on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers, and libraries stricken by natural disasters.”
Following the destructive hurricanes, Becket, a law firm promoting religious liberty interests, advanced a lawsuit on behalf of the Chabad of Key West, Florida, and three Houston churches which sustained heavy damage in the storm, claiming FEMA’s policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Attorney Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, also cheered the move and noted that it was consistent with a 2017 Supreme Court ruling which said that a program to pad playgrounds in Missouri could not summarily exclude religious organizations from being among its grant recipients.
“By finally following the Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches, which in the words of the Supreme Court was ‘odious’ to the First Amendment,” he said.
While FEMA’s policy adjustment will end the present litigation, Mr. Blomberg added that his firm would continue to monitor how grant proposals are handled and “make sure that FEMA’s new policy is implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities.”
In December, the House of Representatives passed bi-partisan legislation which called for the very same change to become law. The Senate is expected to follow suit sometime this month. Both Rabbi Cohen and Mr. Diament stressed that despite the welcome policy announcement, the legislation remains vital so that future administrations will remain bound by it.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a nearly identical bill was introduced and passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in the House, but stalled in the Senate after the Obama administration signaled its opposition to offering FEMA aid to houses of worship.
Rabbi Cohen stressed the broader importance of ending what he identified as an unfair policy.
“There is no constitutional reason to treat houses of worship in this discriminatory manner,” he said. “Indeed, denying the benefits of a widely available public program that is religion-neutral evinces a form of hostility toward religion that is prohibited by our nation’s laws and values.”