A bill that would release FEMA funds to houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy has been stalled in the Senate since last March. The Jewish Daily Forward is reporting that because of the holdup, many religious institutions are left waiting before they can proceed with any more repairs.
Late last February, we reported that the House of Representatives passed a bill that would alter FEMA’s rules to provide emergency funding for religious institutions. At the time FEMA objected to the measure on grounds that it was unconstitutional. Congressman Jerrold Nadler echoed these sentiments in his opposition to the bill, which caused a backlash from Jewish groups who had been lobbying hard for its passage.
While the bill eventually passed in the House, it has since stalled in the Senate with many lawmakers unwilling to debate a bill that might challenge key principles embedded in the First Amendment, namely the separation of church and state. As a result of the hesitation, those waiting for the money have begun to lose hope:
“Our hands are completely tied waiting for the state to give us the money we so desperately need to rebuild,” said Levi Pine, director of operations for the Russian American Jewish Experience, a local group housed in a heavily damaged Jewish center. “For many, Sandy is a thing of the past; for us still waiting, it’s something we deal with daily…”
“There are thousands of members just looking for morale,” Pine said. “FEMA would simply help build morale. Everyone’s basically feeling like orphans. And we get mixed messages from FEMA.”
Despite the logjam, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) have put forward new legislation which has been described as a counterpart to the original House bill. The Senate bill would free up FEMA spending for physical repairs and systems needed in houses of worship but exclude spending on religious items like Bibles, Torahs or Korans. Gillibrand and Blunt hope that the new limitations would represent a compromise to those who fear that the legislation would violate the First Amendment.
“Faith-based groups deserve the same opportunities to receive federal disaster aid as other nonprofit organizations,” Blunt said in a statement.
In the meantime, volunteers have tried to pick up the slack and help repair religious buildings damaged in the storm while others have moved on from waiting for government intervention entirely:
At RAJE, leaders enlisted the help of Third Day Missions, which is led by the Rev. Daniel Delgado of Staten Island and coordinates Christian volunteers from around the country to help with recovery work. Pine was thankful for their help, but he also said that they couldn’t be expected to provide the same level of work as professional contractors. He added that with volunteers, it’s often unclear how many will come each week and what tasks will get done…
Jeffrey Goldfarb, a member of Young Israel of Kings Bay, in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, helped his congregation put together applications and forms for aid. The building incurred $70,000 in damages and recently reopened its main sanctuary through the use of borrowed funds. “The minute I saw the bill, I thought it was interesting,” he said. “I thought it was a great thing to do, but it’s just terrible that it’s taken this long.”