Amid dual storms, Jewish groups fight over FEMA funding

Jewish groups claim FEMA should not hold back from helping religious communities, but the First Amendment stands in the way.

Massive Hurricane Irma seen from space, September 8, 2017. (Reuters/NASA)
WASHINGTON – American Jewish organizations are clashing over whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides government aid to victims of natural disasters, should be allowed to provide direct funding to damaged houses of worship – a practice long banned over concerns it would breach the nation’s constitutional divide between church and state.
One week after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area with epic flooding, and just as Irma, another fierce hurricane, is expected to make landfall in South Florida, groups on the religious Right are renewing their calls for federal help.
“Now it’s doubly important, as Irma bears down on Florida,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s advocacy center that is leading the lobbying campaign to end FEMA’s ban.
“We’ve had very good discussions with key staffers at the White House, at the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA,” Diament said. “At the same time, we are working with our key allies in Congress.”
Diament’s fight has been a long slog: After super-storm Sandy ravaged the New York area in 2013, other religious groups joined his cause, including the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee and even the apolitical UJA-Federation of New York.
But they failed to make headway, facing opposition from civil liberties advocates.
“We are cautiously optimistic we will get this done – but mindful we were stymied in the Senate after Sandy,” Diament said. “So we are doing our work.”
FEMA lists several nonprofit organizations as eligible for assistance, but omits houses of worship. The OU now hopes that US President Donald Trump will support a change, and that Congress will move to codify that change in time.
The religious Right has united around this cause across faiths. Becket, a religious advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against FEMA in federal court last week in an effort to overturn the restriction.
But the Left and left-leaning religious groups have found common cause in fighting back as well. Back in 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union led a charge to protect the ban. An interfaith group is opposing any changes this time around.
“FEMA, like the rest of the federal government, is prevented by the First Amendment from steering taxpayer funds to houses of worship.
While there is an understandable temptation to provide public funds to houses of worship in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s a temptation we must resist,” Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said in a statement.
“The underpinning of religious liberty in America is the separation of church and state,” he continued. “Steering public funds to houses of worship clearly violates constitutional boundaries between the two and would open the door to government interference in the affairs of houses of worship.” The region under threat from Irma is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the United States. An estimated 540,000 Jews live in South Florida, with an additional 49,000 in the Houston area.