Sandy Aid For Houses Of Worship Stalled

Constitutional concerns keeping measure from Senate vote.

By Stewart Ain

Originally published in The Jewish Week, November 12, 2013

Despite optimism that Congress would quickly pass legislation authorizing federal financial assistance to synagogues and other houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy, the bill is bottled up in the Senate after overwhelming passage in the House last February.

Supporters of the bill blame Sen. Tom Carper (D-De.), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, for refusing to bring it before the committee.

“He believes the bill is unconstitutional,” explained Nathan Diament, executive director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center in Washington. “There are plenty of other folks who don’t think that is an issue. They had a debate on this in the House and the bill passed. We are perfectly comfortable having that debate, but Sen. Carper doesn’t want that debate to happen.”

A spokesman for Carper, Aaron Fobes, had no immediate comment.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, said his organization had “worked very hard with a wide range of constitutional experts to recast the House bill so that it would pass constitutional muster.”

Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the American Jewish Committee, agreed, although adding: “I don’t want to suggest it is cut and dry, but on balance it is a constitutional way to deal with this effort.”

He said the Senate bill would amend the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s statute to clarify that houses of worship are covered and that it would be up to FEMA to implement it.

Foltin pointed out that the AJC has been a “staunch advocate for the separation of church and state and is against funding going to houses of worship. However, what we are dealing with now is not a funding stream intended to promote religious activity or one that would be subject to the discretion of policy makers. We are dealing with what amounts to a form of social insurance as the community responds to a disaster that hits all parts of society. We are trying to hold all institutions harmless for the harm visited upon them.”

Foltin said this legislation would be similar to the AJC’s support of federal funding to strengthen religious institutions against a terrorist threat.

“This is not promoting religion,” he said. “The Senate bill explicitly carves out an exception so that there could be no funding for the sanctuary and other explicitly religious portions of the structure that were damaged.”

Pollock said there are “lots and lots of houses of worship that desperately need assistance to be able to come back to life after Sandy.”

“This is a very unique case,” he said. “It is not that we are asking for regular government support for houses of worship. What we are saying is that if there is a disaster declared by the president, houses of worship shall be treated the same as other non-profits that get FEMA assistance.”

Pollock said that the difficulties now being encountered in the Senate are “not only constitutional issues but budget issues. … People are now criticizing this as a blank check, which is very hard to overcome with today’s gridlock.”

Diament said there is no way to skirt Carper and assign the bill to a different committee.

“But there is another way to pass the legislation outside of the committee,” he said. “The process is for the Senate to add it to another bill. … We are not going to give up; we are being persistent. We are confident that if the bill made it to the floor it would pass. It would be retroactive for Sandy and all future disasters.”

Asked about the cost for Superstorm Sandy, Diament said it is “estimated that for the dozens of houses of worship it will cost $40 million to $45 million.” But he quickly pointed out that FEMA spent $70 million on the Coney Island Aquarium alone.

“So for half of that money houses of worship could be fixed,” Diament said.