The first church of FEMA

Originally published in the New York Post, February 16, 2013

What do Jerry Nadler and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have against New York’s churches, synagogues, temples and mosques?

The House of Representatives has just voted 354 to 72 to make houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy eligible for the same federal relief available to other nonprofits. It passed over objections from Nadler and the American Civil Liberties Union.

A rabbi for the hard-hit West End Temple in Rockaway frames the issue well: “I am a separation-of-church-and-state kind of person, but if my temple were to have a fire, the Fire Department is not going to pull up and say, ‘This is a synagogue, we can’t put out the fire.’”

The rabbi is right.

The bill was cosponsored by two local members of Congress — New York Democrat Grace Meng and New Jersey Republican Chris Smith. In a letter of support to Smith, Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz writes that “once FEMA has the policy in place to aid various nonprofit organizations with their building repairs, houses of worship should not be excluded from receiving this aid on the same terms.”

In its own letter, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty notes that if FEMA’s discrimination is allowed to stand, it would deny churches and synagogues the same help available to the neighborhood zoo.

We’ve been here before. Back during the Bush years, FEMA denied relief to a Hebrew school damaged by a Seattle earthquake. A successful challenge by the Orthodox Union, which is now spearheading this fight, changed that.

The irony of FEMA’s discrimination should be obvious: It hurts the very people who, in the wake of Sandy, rushed to the front lines to get relief to their neighbors.

There’s also a lesson for our government agencies, especially FEMA. When the storm hit, religious communities mobilized immediately to deliver relief, quickly and efficiently, where it was needed most. That led to interesting alliances — such as Mormons and Muslims coming together to bring food, sump pumps and winter clothing to thousands of Sandy sufferers.

In short, this bill has more to do with common sense than the Constitution. We hope we’re not unduly offending Rep. Nadler and his pals at the ACLU when we say we pray our senators approve it quickly.