WASHINGTON — In the wake of two hurricanes that wreaked enormous havoc in Texas and Florida, Jewish groups are reasserting themselves in a policy battle over whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should direct disaster relief toward houses of worship.
The longstanding FEMA principle is that it shouldn’t — a decision guided by the First Amendment of the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
But several US Jewish organizations are pushing to reverse that rule in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Most adamantly among them is the Orthodox Union, the right-leaning political wing of the Orthodox Jewish movement. “This is a long-running issue we’ve been working on, and a battle we’ve been having with FEMA, for nearly 20 years,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center.
Diament, however, thinks the tide may be turning. US President Donald Trump indicated recently that he supports religious institutions receiving monetary aid from the federal government after a natural disaster.
“Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” he said in a tweet on September 8.
Another development cited by Diament was this June’s Supreme Court ruling that Missouri could not deny public funds to a church just because it is a religious institution. The case, decided by a vote of 7-2, arose after the state rejected the Trinity Lutheran Church for a grant to resurface its children’s playground.
Diament said he’s been in talks with the administration and that it’s receptive to reversing the current restriction. “The tweet itself does not change the policy, but I’ve been in discussions since then with the White House staff and we’re optimistic that the policy will get changed,” he told The Times of Israel on Monday.
“At the same time, we’re also working with our partners on Capitol Hill.”
After Hurricane Sandy inflicted massive damage to the coastal towns of New York and New Jersey in 2012, the House of Representatives passed a bill to change the FEMA rule, but it ultimately died in the Senate.
President Trump could, theoretically, issue an executive order rescinding the current policy, but religious leaders want legislation to codify it in US law. Otherwise, a future president could simply change it again with the stroke of a pen.
The American Jewish Committee has supported such legislation since Hurricane Sandy, when religious centers were severely damaged and ineligible for FEMA Relief Funds.
“We’re dealing here, in our view, with an issue of social insurance, where we’re dealing with a natural disaster that hits the entire society and without regard to whether an institution is religious or not religious,” Richard Foltin, the group’s director of national and legislative affairs, told The Times of Israel. “It’s not the kind of situation where the funding indicates the government is supporting religion.”
For Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, changing the FEMA rule would infringe on a precious constitutional principle.But not every Jewish leader agrees.
“FEMA, like the rest of the federal government, is prevented by the First Amendment from steering taxpayer funds to houses of worship,” he said in a statement. “While there is an understandable temptation to provide public funds to houses of worship in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s a temptation we must resist.”
He went on, “Steering public funds to houses of worship clearly violates constitutional boundaries between the two and would open the door to government interference in the affairs of houses of worship. An exception for FEMA, whether driven by genuine compassion or the Religious Right’s desire to mix church and state, would undercut religious liberty.”
It is not yet clear how much tangible harm was inflicted on synagogues, churches, mosques and other faith-based institutions in Houston and Florida from the recent storms.