Bill Expanding FEMA to Houses of Worship Signed Into Law

FEMA, worship, religious
United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston, damaged in Hurricane Harvey. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Orthodox advocacy organizations welcomed the passage and signing of legislation that makes houses of worship eligible for disaster relief funds from the federal government.

The new law was passed by both houses of Congress on Thursday and signed by the president on Friday morning as part of a larger budget agreement. It addresses a policy that excluded shuls, churches, mosques and the like, as well as many religious educational facilities, 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.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director of Agudath Israel of America, said that the new law not only provides much-needed funding to affected institutions, but sends a welcome message regarding the role of religious organizations.

“This is a profoundly important step forward for equal treatment of religious institutions,” he said. “With this change, they will no longer be unfairly treated as ‘second-class citizens’ with regard to disaster relief aid. Ultimately, the beneficiaries will be the communities they serve.”

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, 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. 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) proposed a parallel bill to the Senate.

The Trump administration voiced early support for the legislation, and early last month, FEMA announced a policy adjustment that opened their funding to houses of worship. However, the push to pass the bill continued to ensure that the change would remain enshrined in law and protected from the whims of future administrations.

Agudah and the Orthodox Union (OU), together with a broad base of other religious organizations, had advocated for the funding to be expanded to include houses of worship for many years.

OU President Rabbi Moishe Bane pointed to the role shuls and others have played in disaster relief.

“Our synagogues and other houses of worship across the country have long served on the front lines during natural disasters, providing life-saving assistance to their surrounding communities while themselves contending with damage,” he said. “This new provision will help them continue to serve as critical support centers during the devastation of natural disasters.”

The bill also included nearly $90 billion in overdue aid to institutions previously barred from the program.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, FEMA’s prior policy had been under legal attack as well. Becket, a law firm promoting religious liberty interests, advanced a suit on behalf of the Chabad of Key West, Florida, and three Houston churches that sustained heavy damage in the storm, claiming that FEMA’s policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The firm 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.

One of the many institutions that could stand to reap the benefits of the new law 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.

Having sustained heavy damage in previous floods as well, and in light of the heavy damage, its Rabbi, Barry Gelman, told Hamodia that he and other shul leaders have decided to demolish the structure and rebuild in a new location on higher ground. He told Hamodia that the shul is still reviewing the details of FEMA grants to determine whether they intend to apply.

Rabbi Cohen emphasized that the legislation also addressed a clause that excluded schools determined to be “of primary religious use.”

“Though some Jewish schools have survived this test and have received FEMA aid, there is no question that many of our institutions — including yeshivos gedolos on the higher-education level, as well as a growing percentage of elementary and secondary yeshivah day schools — might not be deemed eligible for disaster relief,” he said. “After working with Jewish schools for over two decades on FEMA-related problems, I knew we couldn’t let it stand.”

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