Those concerns were echoed by the ADL in its statement issued Jan. 4.
“Houses of worship are special – not like other non-profits and not like other buildings,” it said. “They receive special constitutional protections from government interference, special tax-exempt benefits for contributions and have special restrictions that prohibit direct public funding.”
Such concerns, also expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union, are misplaced, according to Marc Stern, AJC’s associate general counsel. He referred to FEMA-directed relief for a church damaged in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a neighboring federal building, as well as relief for a Jewish day school hit in the 2001 Seattle earthquake.
“The ACLU-ADL position is a little bit odd,” he said. “You can pay for rebuilding a zoo, but houses of worship are not eligible.”
FEMA in its briefing for lawmakers said the precedents cited by Stern and others do not hold in this case. In the Oklahoma City case, the agency said, the congressional appropriation made it clear that the funding for the damaged church was a one-time exception. In the Seattle case, the money was applied to a school, not a house of worship.
“In contrast, a house of worship such as a synagogue is not an educational facility, nor does it fall within one of the other categories of facility specifically listed” under prior law, FEMA said.
Meng said FEMA easily could assess whether a house of worship was seeking funds to advance religion or to provide a community service in the same way it assesses whether homeowners are eligible.