Federal disaster relief policy denies repair and reconstruction assistance to houses of worship — and that needs to change, the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders have said. “Firefighters don’t refuse to put out a fire because the fire is at a synagogue. The police don’t refuse to investigate a break-in because burglars targeted a church. And FEMA should not refuse houses of worship the same aid that it offers other non-profits,” Catholic and Jewish leaders wrote in USA Today.
“If a house of worship meets all the criteria for aid, it should be eligible to receive that aid on par with everyone else. Regardless of how FEMA treats us, however, we will still be present in our communities,” they continued. “We will feed the hungry, care for the orphan and elder, shelter the homeless, and welcome the immigrant.” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami joined Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in writing the Sept. 27 opinion piece objecting to the policy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
They advocated the passage of the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017. Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives in 2013 by a vote of 354-72. The Senate failed to support it, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a backgrounder on the legislation.
Under FEMA policy and the Stafford Act, nonprofits that are open to the public such as museums, libraries, community centers, and homeless shelters are eligible for federal aid for structural repairs if they are damaged in disasters. However, churches, synagogues, and mosques are not.
Proposed legislation to change this policy has the backing of Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. After a natural disaster, houses of worship are denied federal disaster relief funds despite their often “irreplaceable role in the recovery of a community,” the two bishops said in Sept. 27 letters to the House and Senate.
“Discrimination that treats houses of worship as ineligible for federal assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, beyond being a legal violation, hurts the very communities most affected by the indiscriminate force of nature,” they said. The proposed legislation “recognizes the right of religious institutions to receive public financial aid in the context of a broad program administered on the basis of religion-neutral criteria.”
In USA Today, the Catholic and Jewish leaders pointed to the newly famous chainsaw-wielding nun, Sister Margaret Ann, who helped cleared debris in Florida after Hurricane Irma. They also noted the work that staff and congregants of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston did in rescuing people from their homes and bringing them to safe shelter.
“Sister Margaret and the congregants of UOS are emblematic of the role that houses of worship and religious communities play in helping our communities clean up after natural disasters,” the Catholic and Jewish leaders said. “We don’t wait for the local or federal government to step in. We just start helping those in need.” “But when we are in need ourselves after a disaster, the federal government tells us we cannot receive aid because we’re religious,” they added.
United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston was flooded by the hurricane and is mostly unusable for the Jewish High Holidays. FEMA policy has excluded houses of worship from eligibility “simply because these institutions are religious,” charged the religious leaders. Noting that Congress does not require such a policy, they said the ban on funding is “simply FEMA’s misguided and unfair internal policy.”
Some churches damaged in Hurricane Katrina of 2005 or Hurricane George in 1998 faced major hurdles in rebuilding due to lack of FEMA funds. Archbishop Lori and Bishop Rozanski added: “by refusing aid to the very entities so engaged in helping others, FEMA’s policy by extension also hurts the broader community.”
Backers of the legislation include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, several Orthodox and Conservative Jewish groups, the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Becket Law.
The Catholic bishops’ backgrounder said that the June 2017, U.S. Supreme Court decision Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer held that it is unconstitutional to discriminate against churches in a generally available government grant program. The backgrounder cited precedents such as disaster relief grants to churches damaged in the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City federal building, grants under the Department of Homeland Security Nonprofit Security Grant Program, and grants to repair and maintain historically significant buildings like Boston’s Old North Church and the California Missions.