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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