Orthodox advocacy organizations welcomed the introduction of legislation that would make houses of worship eligible for disaster relief funds from the federal government.
The bill, which was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday, addresses a policy that excludes shuls, churches, mosques and other such buildings from receiving grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The issue has been brought to the fore by the damage caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“It defies common sense or any sense of fairness to deny disaster relief to houses of worship, especially when zoos and other recreational facilities are eligible to receive such aid,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for federal affairs and Washington director of the Agudath Israel of America.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, a nearly identical bill was introduced and passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate after the Obama administration signaled its opposition to offering FEMA aid to houses of worship.
This past May, Representatives Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), the original sponsors, reintroduced the legislation. Now, amid discussions over broader aid packages for Texas, Florida, and other areas affected by recent storms, Senators Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have brought a parallel bill to the Senate.
Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump stated his support for changing the policy, saying, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA relief funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey [just like others].” Yet, no formal policy change has been made so far by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the grants.
Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union, told Hamodia that his recent discussions with federal officials makes him “cautiously optimistic” that FEMA will be opened up to houses of worship by a decision of the department itself. Even if this does come to pass, he said, the legislation would remain important.
“Even if the president does change the policy, we would like to see it codified so that we do not run into this problem with future administrations,” said Mr. Diament. “In the next few weeks, we expect to see a larger piece of legislation for the disasters in Houston and Florida and hope this will be a provision in that bill.”
Soon after Harvey hit, a lawsuit was advanced by Becket, a law firm promoting religious liberty interests, on behalf of three Houston churches which sustained heavy damage in the storm, claiming FEMA’s policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
They were hardly the only houses of worship affected by Harvey. Houston’s largest shul, the United Orthodox Synagogues, was flooded by up to seven feet of water, rendering most of the building unusable. Rabbi Barry Gelman told Hamodia that it was uncertain whether the building could be repaired or a new one would have to be built.
The plaintiffs’ position seems to have been buttressed by a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in which it judged that a program to pad playgrounds in Missouri could not summarily exclude religious organizations from being among its grant recipients.
“There are ways that disaster relief may be provided fully within the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court recently ruled that to deny generally allocated federal funds to religious entities, per se, because they were religious, actually shows unconstitutional hostility toward religion,” said Rabbi Cohen.