Seeking to alleviate concerns from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and civil liberties groups over the separation of church and state issues regarding a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to aid houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy, two U.S. senators have introduced a new measure that would limit the aid to repairs of their physical structures.
U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) put forward a new version of the bill last week that specifically bars aid to replace religious items used in worship, such as Bibles, Torahs, Korans, hymnals or icons.
“This bipartisan legislation would ensure that we stand by every community center in need of aid to rebuild from structural damage caused by Sandy,” said Gillibrand. “It is critical that our faith-based organizations and houses of worship have access to federal resources to help rebuild and recover.”
Nine months ago, Sandy caused widespread destruction throughout the tri-state area. Homes, commercial buildings and nearly 200 synagogues, churches and other houses of worship were damaged including many in southern Queens such as the Howard Beach and Rockwood Park Jewish centers, St. Helen and Our Lady of Grace Catholic churches and St. Barnabas Church.
The Senate bill follows the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act that passed the House in February — a bill championed by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) in her first few weeks in office. The bill that passed included much of the language she first proposed in January.
But there has been little discussion on the bill since it was sent to the Senate and referred to the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware), who has said he believes the bill is unconstitutional.
“I have carefully reviewed the proposed legislation and met with representatives from organizations supporting the bill as well as those opposed,” Carper said in an emailed statement. “I’ve also reviewed court cases, including Supreme Court and lower court precedents, and spoken with several law professors and legal experts who specialize in church-state issues. After much thought and careful consideration, I have serious reservations about the bill and believe it would likely be unconstitutional.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said it is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that taxpayer funds cannot go to construct, rebuild or repair buildings used for religious activities. Lawyers at FEMA expressed concern about possible lawsuits filed by the ACLU and others.
According to a spokesperson for Gillibrand, the House bill did not include a limitation for spaces that are primarily used for religious worship services, but instead would make all religious property eligible for FEMA reimbursement, regardless of its religious character. The Senate bill would fund building renovations, but attempts to address concerns raised by FEMA and civil liberties groups about the potential for federal funds being used for religious books and items. It limits assistance for spaces, such as sanctuaries, that are used primarily for religious worship services, to only cover the costs of repairing physical damage to the structure and systems that support the structure, such as heating and air conditioning, while excluding items that are of a religious character.
According to the bill’s authors, under the Stafford Act and current FEMA policy, various types of “private nonprofit facilities” are eligible for federal aid to repair their disaster-damaged facilities. These eligible facilities include: museums, libraries, community centers, performing arts facilities, homeless shelters, senior centers and others. The Stafford Act does not explicitly exclude or include houses of worship, yet FEMA’s policy does exclude them from full and equal eligibility to similarly situated nonprofit organizations.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) had asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, to change its regulations without legislation.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), a co-sponsor of the House bill, said houses of worship “were integral parts of the daily lives of folks that live in the area and till they get up and running people’s lives are not normal.
“Those are vital parts of the community that should be eligible for FEMA money because the community is not whole until they are repaired,” Meeks added.