Last week the House of Representatives approved, by a vote of 354 to 72, a bill that would specifically permit the use of federal money to rebuild synagogues, churches and mosques damaged by Superstorm Sandy. In October Congress allocated $60 billion, part of which was designed to finance recovery efforts of non-profit institutions. However, the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) has routinely denied the applications of houses of worship for disaster relief on the ground that the First Amendment forbids the use of public funds for religious purposes. So legislation was introduced to reverse this FEMA policy. The measure now goes to the Senate where the outcome is not yet clear.
The legislation provides that “a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other house of worship, and a private non-profit facility operated by a religious organization” would be eligible for disaster aid “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”
It would seem the legislation makes eminent common sense. Why exclude religious entities from general remedial programs available to not for profits generally? It is not as if religious institutions are being singled out for special largesse. If Congress decides that it is in the public interest to bring about large-scale restorations, such as roof and sidewall repair, by what logic can one exclude religious institutions that are in exactly the same position as non-religious entities? After all, religious institutions are entitled to, for example, police and fire protection just like their non-religious counterparts.
Indeed, if anything, we should be looking for ways to provide all similarly situated victims of natural disasters the means to rebuild and reenter society. Ironically, most religious institutions were in the forefront of providing early assistance to their battered neighbors.
We therefore find it troubling that Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents some of the devastated areas, not only voted against the remedial legislation but actually stood up in the House of Representatives and voiced his opposition: “Direct government funding of churches, synagogues, and mosques has always been held to be unconstitutional, and the decisions of the Supreme Court establishing that principle remain good law to this day.”
With all due respect, Mr. Nadler is mixing apples and oranges and offering a simplistic application of earlier Supreme Court decisions. This is certainly true in light of recent Supreme Court legitimization of special education programs for parochial school children and publicly funded vouchers redeemable at religious schools. More important, even he conceded that some scholars would disagree with his conclusions on constitutional imperatives.
We think it is the special responsibility of elected officials representing devastated areas to seek assistance for all constituents rather than discriminate against some of them.