American Jewish Committee Supports FEMA Aid for Churches, Opposes NYT Editorial

Members of a Jewish advocacy organization founded in 1906 have written a response to an editorial by The New York Times supporting a bill that would provide FEMA aid to houses of worship.

Bobby Lapin, chairman of the American Jewish Committee's legal committee, and Marc D. Stern, general counsel for the AJC, wrote a column published Wednesday regarding the matter.

"Disaster relief is an expression of social solidarity with victims, not a sophisticated method of transferring responsibility for sustaining religious institutions from the collection plate to the tax collector, the core point of separating church and state," wrote Lapin and Stern.

"It is no different from providing police and fire services and sidewalks to religious institutions, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly held does not violate church-state separation."

Lapin and Stern also argued that the Federal Emergency Management Agency not giving direct grants to houses of worship was "impermissible under the Constitution."

"Allowing government to restore secular cultural institutions, but not houses of worship, to reconstitute communities would rest on an assumption … that only secular cultural institutions are essential to functioning communities," wrote Lapin and Stern.

Lapin and Stern were responding to a column by the Times' editorial board denouncing a proposed bill in Congress that would provide FEMA grants to houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

"House Republicans and Democrats do not agree on much these days, but they managed to join together last month to breach the proper separation between church and state," reads the editorial, published Monday.

"George W. Bush's administration, which accelerated government backing for 'faith-based' social service programs, did not order FEMA financing for church reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina."

The NYT editorial board also argued, as church-state watchdog groups have, that houses of worship are already eligible for money from the government for disaster assistance.

"Churches, like most nonprofit organizations and businesses, are eligible for government loans to make storm-related repairs," reads the editorial. "They are also eligible for disaster assistance grants, just as secular nonprofit organizations are, if they dedicate at least 50 percent of their facilities to providing 'essential services of a governmental nature' – like a community homeless shelter or soup kitchen open to the general public on a nondiscriminatory basis."

The debate over disaster assistance to churches damaged by Superstorm Sandy came when it was announced that FEMA would not give direct aid to houses of worship.

In response to the FEMA rule, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act" in February. Sponsored by Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey and Democratic Representative Grace Meng of New York, the bill passed with 354 yeas and 72 nays.

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