Bill granting FEMA funds to Sandy-damaged shuls sparks uncharacteristic Jewish response
WASHINGTON (JTA) -- How essential is a house of worship to a neighborhood?
That’s the crux of a question now exercising Congress as a bill advances that would provide direct relief to synagogues and churches damaged by superstorm Sandy last October.
The bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week by a vote of 354-72 with strong bipartisan support, adds houses of worship to those defined as a “private nonprofit facility that provides essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”
The Senate is expected to take up the measure soon; backers there include Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has withheld funding for houses of worship, citing constitutional separations of church and state. FEMA, which fiercely opposes the bill, wrote in a backgrounder distributed to congressional offices and obtained by JTA that “churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship” cannot “be broadly considered to provide ‘essential services of a governmental nature.’ ”