In an effort to persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to include houses of worship in their grant package to those churches, synagogues and mosques that were either destroyed or sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Sandy, a campaign is being led toward that end by several Jewish organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee.A broad range of private nonprofit organizations qualify for federal disaster assistance grants, including zoos, museums, performing arts centers and libraries, however houses of worship are not on the list. In recent years the federal government has ruled that some religiously affiliated institutions like schools and hospitals can obtain grants, but very few qualify.
When the affects of Hurricane Sandy flooded and severely battered the St. George Malankara Orthodox Church of India in New Dorp, Staten Island, leaving its basement, windows and doors in complete ruination, the cost of rebuilding the edifice was estimated at $150,000. When the church’s vicar contacted FEMA to request a grant to help with the costs, he was flatly turned down. “FEMA said they considered the church a business, so they offered is a loan.” said the Reverend Alex K. Joy in an interview about a month after the superstorm. “But we don’t want a loan. We have 400 members, 90 families. In this situation, we need some assistance,” he added.
Father Joy, said he spoke with President Obama about the issue during his visit to Staten Island in November, and last week said that his church reopened for Christmas with the help of private donations alone. (The church did not have insurance to cover the damage.)
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, (I-CT) introduced an amendment to the $61 billion Hurricane Sandy recovery appropriations bill, last month, that would explicitly place houses of worship on the list of qualified organizations. Because of an unrelated bipartisan deal meant to ease the bill’s passage, that amendment was locked out of consideration. As Sen. Lieberman’s tenure came to a conclusion last week, his efforts were being continued by others who strongly feel that the government should assist in defraying the exorbitant expenses in rebuilding religious centers.
Nathan Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Institute for Public Affairs at the Orthodox Union, said he would work with other lawmakers to add the amendment to the bill before it came again before Congress.
“Houses of worship should not be discriminated against and excluded from getting assistance on the same terms as other eligible nonprofits,” he said. To that end, Mr. Diament has also been meeting with Homeland Security Department officials and other federal agencies to determine whether changes can be made to the FEMA grant guidelines without legislative approval. He added that since FEMA regulations do not speak directly to the matter of houses of worship receiving grants, all that may be required is a bureaucratic decision.
Because constitutional laws regulating the separation of church and state generally prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars being slated to build religious institutions, the issue is embroiled in controversy. Saying that her organization had “serious concerns” about the effort to implement modifications to the policy that bars all levels of government from funding religious institutions, Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), added, “To rebuild houses of worship is a form of compelled support for religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against We understand and identify with the serious difficulties everyone is facing, but we can’t let this misfortune be used as a premise to erode these bedrock principles.”
“I think that challenges would be inevitable if you started to reconstruct religious buildings with federal or state tax dollars, “ said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Disagreeing with this premise is Marc D. Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Committee. In a letter to senators last week, he argued that aid “distributed under a neutral program of storm relief” could be made available constitutionally in part because “there is a strong societal interest in aid to all who have suffered damage.”
Though it is not at all clear how this issue will be resolved, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York and several other Jewish organizations have been encouraging synagogues that were severely damaged because of Sandy to apply for FEMA rebuilding grants before upcoming deadlines, in the event that the rule changes. While institutions affiliated with other religions have not been in the forefront of this push to receive government assistance for their rebuilding efforts, a representative of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops is also supportive of the change. If the new financing rules are subject to change, then assistance would be applicable for all houses of worship, irrespective of religion.
Mr. Diament said that in New York, about 40 damaged synagogues will most likely apply for grants and in New Jersey there would be approximately a dozen. The great majority of the synagogues in New York that would be applying for aid are located in the storm ravaged areas of Sea Gate in Brooklyn, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Coney Island, Far Rockaway and the Five Towns area of Long Island, along with other Long Island towns located near the south shore.
The predominantly Orthodox Jewish community of Bayswater, which is located on a peninsula northwest of Far Rockaway, captured a great deal of attention, with some sections completely underwater as a result of flooding from the adjacent ocean, due to overflowing high tides whipped up by the hurricane-force winds. The Orthodox Agudath Israel of Bayswater shul was completely decimated by Sandy’s ferocity and the entire building needs to be gutted. The nearby Torah Academy for Girls school was also inundated with severe flooding.
While the total count on churches that would require government assistance has not been determined, some of the damaged buildings, such as the Episcopal churches along the New Jersey barrier islands, carry comprehensive insurance and may not need the extra help, said Cynthia McFarland, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey.
Dennis Bellars, the senior warden of St. Elisabeth’s Chapel-by-the-Sea in Ortley Beach, New Jersey said, “We have 100 percent replacement value through the church’s insurance.” The chapel was washed away in the storm, and when Mr. Bellars called FEMA, he said, he was told that the owner of the church, the local diocese, would have to submit the application.
It has been reported, however, that the legal constraints on FEMA’s ability to provide grants for houses of worship is not all inclusive. Churches and synagogues are afforded the opportunity to apply for reimbursement for social services they provide their congregants and others, including homeless shelters, preschools or feeding programs. Houses of worship can also qualify for low-interest Small Business Administration loans.
Some of the clergy members applying for disaster grants said they understood the complexity of the issue, and were not counting on the money. Rabbi David S. Bauman of Temple Israel of Long Beach, New York said he spoke with President Obama about FEMA financing at the White House Chanukah party in December, and added that he was soliciting the financial assistance of as many prospective donors as possible for his temple’s $5 million in damage.
“I’m frustrated,” Rabbi Bauman said, “but I don’t have harsh feelings toward the policy, because I understand it.”
With the help of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), Rabbi Marjorie Slome of the severely damaged West End Temple in the Rockaways section of Queens said she planned to submit her grant application on Dec. 31. Private donations and insurance payments had so far come up short, she said.
“I’m hopeful that the government will understand it’s a one-time thing, that our goal is not to blur the separation of church and state,” Rabbi Slome said. “I understand that it is a tenuous line to walk, but our synagogue is really going to need help in being able to open its doors again.”