Religious leaders have praised senators who introduced a bill this week which would ensure that houses of worship are not discriminated against when federal funds are distributed for disaster relief.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, a part of the Homeland Security department, has come under fire from inter-faith leaders for its policy which helps all non-profts except houses of worship.
“Right now FEMA, which has provided aid to all kinds of nonprofit institutions hit by Sandy, excludes only one kind of institution in a wholesale manner: houses of worship,” said Bishop William F. Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese and Rabbi Hershel Billet, head of Young Israel of Woodmere.
“Sandy and the recent Oklahoma tornadoes assaulted people without discrimination. FEMA needs to respond without discrimination, too,” they wrote in a July 11 opinion piece for Newsday.
Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told CNA/EWTN News July 12 that the organization would support the bill “because churches, mosques, and synagogues provide a lot of aid themselves to local communities when they've been through disasters.”
“So having those places functioning can sort of help give the religious community a place to centralize to provide greater aid to the community in which they live.”
Earlier this week, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced legislation ensuring that houses of worship are eligible for disaster relief and emergency assistance on terms equal to other non-profit facilities.
Non-profits which are already given federal aid include such facilities as museums, libraries, community centers, homeless shelters, and senior centers.
A similar bill introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), called the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, was passed by the House on Feb. 13 by an overwhelming majority of 354-72.
Smith said July 11 that “when a bill passes the House by such a strong, bipartisan margin … it is hoped that the Senate will work aggressively to send it to the President’s desk. The legislation is desperately needed to put fairness back into our disaster relief programs.”
He commended Senators Gillibrand and Blunt, as well as Jeff Chiesa (R-NJ), for supporting the initiative in the upper legislative body, saying, “I am confident their leadership will help break the log jam and bring equity to the program.”
Smith noted that FEMA “continues to discriminate against houses of worship” even though the Small Business Administration and the Homeland Security department do not.
“It’s time FEMA get up to date and recognize that superstorms are indiscriminant in their damage and faith-based organizations welcome and greatly assist all victims affected by a disaster. For a community to fully recover, the houses of worship that often are the centers of emergency assistance also need to receive recovery assistance.”
Bishop Murphy and Rabbi Billet noted that “when superstorm Sandy ravaged Long Beach, houses of worship opened their doors to aid anyone in need..”
They gave the example of Saint Ignatius Parish, which produced a community center, and Young Israel of Woodmere, which became an aid distribution center.
And in the Brooklyn diocese, St. Camillus and Virgilius parishes, which were themselves struck by Sandy, acted as distribution centers and food program sites after the superstorm left.
“That's why it's ironic that these community institutions that serve others in time of need stand scorned when it comes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency helping them repair and rebuild, the way it helps other private institutions,” wrote the bishop and rabbi.
The two noted that FEMA's exclusion of houses of worship for assistance is based on a “false and narrow-minded conception of the separation of church and state.”
FEMA has been made to assist houses of worship in the past. In 1995, Congress overruled the group's refusal to help churches damaged in the Oklahoma City bombing, and in 2002 the Justice department ordered the agency to aid religious organizations damaged by an earthquake in Seattle.
Hurricane Sandy’s Oct. 29 landfall killed over 110 people in the U.S. and caused more than $50 billion in damage. The storm left millions without power, and crippled transportation.
The megastorm had killed at least 67 in Caribbean nations before hitting New Jersey.