Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast hard–we’ve all seen the pictures and heard the stories. Over 200 Catholic parishes, dozens of synagogues, and hundreds of churches, members of the New York State Council of Churches were affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Housing and Urban Development Department, supported by the ACLU, will withhold relief funding from houses of worship. It’s not about withholding funding from non-profits–zoos, museums, performing arts centers, and other non-profits qualify for relief funding, but not houses of worship. This, despite the fact that many religious groups are the first to provide help and shelter to those people hit by natural disasters.
The decision by this administration’s FEMA and HUD to withhold disaster relief fund comes in spite of past Congressional action and Department of Justice decisions. After the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, HUD and FEMA refused to provide emergency relief funding to religious buildings. Congress acted to direct the funding be provided. After an earthquake in Seattle in 2002, FEMA denied the request of a Jewish school for emergency funds. The DOJ ruled that FEMA could distribute funds to a religious school.
Prior to, and during, Superstorm Sandy, emergency workers and first responders treated houses of worship the same as residences and businesses–they fortified roofs, pumped out basements, and extinguished fires. But after the storm, FEMA distributed emergency funds to other non-profits and refused to do so for religious organizations.
This past week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill allowing federal funding for the rebuilding of damaged churches and synagogues. Let us hope that the Senate shows the same common sense when they consider the bill in the weeks to come.