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Orthodox Seeking Federal Funds for Sandy-Struck Synagogues UPDATED

The law will correct a defect in the current FEMA legislation by making clear that houses of worship are to be included amongst the nonprofit recipients of federal disaster relief aid
Boro Park Getting Ready for Hurricane Sandy, 2012.

Boro Park Getting Ready for Hurricane Sandy, 2012.
Photo Credit: JDN

Wednesday is the day you can help the synagogues and other houses of worship that helped you and others who suffered from Hurricane Sandy.

After Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New York City and the surrounding communities last fall, many synagogues and other houses of worship became distribution centers for material goods and spiritual relief to those affected.  Many of those buildings sustaining enormous damage from the storm.  But because those types of non-profits are not specifically mentioned in the authorizing legislation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been unwilling to provide them with available relief funds.

The Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs and the National Council of Young Israel are asking constituents to call their federal legislative representatives and tell them to vote in favor of legislation that will solve the problem: HR 592, the “Federal Disaster Assistance NonProfit Fairness Act of 2013.”

HR 592 is bi-partisan legislation introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat (NY-06), and Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican (NJ- 04).  It will correct a defect in the current FEMA legislation by making clear that houses of worship are to be included amongst the nonprofit recipients of federal disaster relief aid.

The language that the bill will add to the current law that provides disaster relief and emergency funding defines houses of worship as

A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, shall be eligible for contributions under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility

The ever-present fear that any time government and religion come near each other the mighty “separation of Church and State” that Americans hold dear might be threatened is often enough to overcome common sense.  But the Constitution does not prohibit any relationship between the two, what it prohibits is for the government to promote and support one particular religion, according to the bill’s proponents.

Because HR 592 will provide funding for any house of worship that is affected by natural disasters, the fear of unconstitutionality recedes. In order to ensure there is no misunderstanding, the religious organizations hope that the legislation is passed.  If it is, millions of dollars of the relief fund will become available to the more than 2oo synagogues and other houses of worship that were damaged in the storm.

A vote on this bill will take place on Wednesday, February 13.  The OU and NCYI ask that all citizens call their legislators and ask them to vote yes on HR 592.  For those who don’t know how to contact their representatives, or even who is their representative, there are websites which provide the information.

In addition to the organizations that represent Orthodox Jews, there is a broad range of support for HR 592, including the Jewish Federations of North America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council of Churches of the City of New York, the American Jewish Committee, the Archdiocese of Trenton and Newark, the American Jewish Committee and Agudath Israel.

UPDATE Febreary 13:  Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 592, by a vote of 354 to 72.  The bill now goes to the Senate for approval.

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.


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5 Responses to “Orthodox Seeking Federal Funds for Sandy-Struck Synagogues UPDATED”

  1. James Peron says:

    No religious group should be funded from tax funds ever, for any reason. And, they all should be taxed the same as all other non-profits.

  2. How is it that title SEEKING FUNDS was changed TO CHASING FUNDS?

  3. Can you expand on that? If building, housing house of worship, got flooded and was damaged, just like yours, they not entitled to the same help like you?

  4. Lori Lowenthal Marcus says:

    this is from a special fund for non-profits, it is not the same as for residential housing. houses of worship are classified as non-profits, like animal shelters or legal aid offices. Because religious institutions are treated separately very often because of the strong desire to keep "church and state" separate, the houses of worship were not eligible to apply for the funds that other damaged non-profits could. I hope that's helpful.

  5. Charlie Hall says:

    James Madison, who actually wrote the First Amendment, and Thomas Jefferson, who had authored a similar statute when Governor of Virginia, held the same position as James Peron. I know that it is now completely un-PC to suggest that the US can learn anything from Europe, but the fact is that in Europe, religious institutions receive government funding and it has not resulted in a loss of religious liberty. France is the most militantly secular country in the free world yet it generously funds Jewish schools. Hence the fears of Madison and Jefferson regarding excessive religious entanglement with government have been proven to be unfounded.

    Also, religious institutions DO pay taxes on their property that is not used for religious purposes. And exemptions from civil rights laws and the like only apply to strictly religious activities and not to things like hospitals and social service organizations run by religious organizations. There is currently an attempt to block the Obamacare contraception mandate as it applies to such activities and that is wrong — if a religious organization is involved in non-religious activity it needs to be treated the same as a non-religious organization.

    And that is the justification for the FEMA aid! Religious organizations should be treated the same as non-religious organizations. The current law does not make this clear; what the House of Representatives did clarifies this. Hopefully the Senate will go along quickly.

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