Damaged houses of worship deserve Sandy aid, too

By Rabbi Hershel Billet and Bishop William F. Murphy

Originally published in Newsday, July 12, 2013

When disasters strike, there are people you can count on. The fire department, the rescue squad, the police and, as seen time and again, the local synagogue, church and other houses of worship.

In a natural disaster, a synagogue or church offers more than prayer. When superstorm Sandy ravaged Long Beach, houses of worship opened their doors to aid anyone in need. St. Ignatius Parish, even though it lost the church’s heating system to floodwaters in the basement, still turned its upstairs rooms into a community center. It was the place neighbors knew they could meet neighbors. From there, the parish offered comfort, as well as $100 gift cards to The Home Depot and Target. The Young Israel of Woodmere became a distribution center for all kinds of aid to those affected by the storm.

We saw the same in Moore, Okla., in May. After tornadoes struck, St. Andrew’s in Moore was without water, telephones and power. But St. Mark’s Catholic Church in nearby Norman opened its doors to provide money and gift cards for food, clothing and gas. The next day it had a counselor on hand to help people deal with the devastation. Now its parishioners are over in Moore to help people sort through their losses. So too, the Chabad Jewish Center of Oklahoma City opened its doors to provide shelter and food to the displaced.

This is all to be expected. Houses of worship are woven into the lives of their communities. They’re familiar places where neighbors can turn for more than a blessing. And they rise to the occasion.

That’s why it’s ironic that these community institutions that serve others in time of need stand scorned when it comes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency helping them repair and rebuild, the way it helps other private institutions.

Right now FEMA, which has provided aid to all kinds of nonprofit institutions hit by Sandy, excludes only one kind of institution in a wholesale manner: houses of worship. FEMA’s basis for this? A false and narrow-minded conception of the separation of church and state.

Several precedents counter FEMA’s policy; the most relevant is from 1995, when Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to help churches damaged by the bombing in Oklahoma City.

This federal aid is a kind of insurance to help those struck by disaster. Like the police and fire departments, it should be there for all. If someone robs a church or if a synagogue goes up in flames, we don’t expect civil servants to say, “We won’t help because it’s a house of worship.” We expect civil authorities to address civil problems: fire, theft, the roof blown off and the basement flooded nearly beyond repair. It’s common sense.

The House of Representatives recently passed, with strong bipartisan support, legislation to address this outrage. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced similar legislation in the Senate earlier this week.

Houses of worship stabilize communities. They are places people can and do turn to when in need. They’re as valuable as the grocery store, the theater at the mall, the beach, the town medical center and the house next door. And when hurricanes and tornadoes strike, they are equally worthy of help from the nation’s disaster assistance program.

Sandy and the recent Oklahoma tornadoes assaulted people without discrimination. FEMA needs to respond without discrimination, too.

Rabbi Hershel Billet heads the Young Israel of Woodmere. Bishop William F. Murphy heads the Diocese of Rockville Centre.