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Editorial: Let houses of worship get federal Sandy aid

Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel of Long

Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel of Long Beach, which took damage from superstorm Sandy. (Dec. 10, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Houses of worship ravaged by superstorm Sandy should be eligible for the same federal disaster assistance that is available to other nonprofit organizations. That's not the case right now, but it would be if legislation passed last week by the House of Representatives becomes law. It should.

When communities are devastated by storms or floods, the federal government alone has pockets deep enough to provide the help they need to get back on their feet. Houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, are important members of their communities. They're often employers, and many provide critical services such as child care and soup kitchens. When disaster strikes, they shouldn't be left out in the cold.

More than 200 places of worship in the New York-New Jersey region hit by Sandy have formally inquired about aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, only to find they don't qualify. Among them is Temple Israel in Long Beach, where 10 feet of salt water flooded the lower level and destroyed a kitchen, offices, and the building's heating and electrical systems.

That synagogue could get government help to rebuild under legislation sponsored by Reps. Grace Meng (D-Queens), Peter King (R-Seaford), Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) and others, and passed by the House Wednesday 354-72. It would add houses of worship to the list of nonprofits, such as museums, libraries, schools and arts centers, eligible for FEMA assistance.

The bill applies only to places of worship damaged by Sandy, and whatever assistance they may ultimately get would be paid out of the $51-billion Sandy relief package Congress approved last month. FEMA money could be used to rebuild and repair structures, but not to replace religious materials or artifacts.

Views are split on whether providing government disaster aid to houses of worship violates the separation of church and state established by the U.S. Constitution. Under the strictest interpretation, no government money could be used to rebuild houses of worship. Prohibiting any government encroachment whatsoever would protect religious liberty. But in practice, the rule hasn't been that absolute.

Charitable contributions to places of worship are tax deductible -- like other charitable donations -- even though the taxes waived for the donor are like a matching grant from the government. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government-funded school vouchers can be used to pay for students to attend parochial schools. And if the Senate joins the House in approving the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, it wouldn't be the first time Congress has made religious groups eligible for FEMA aid. They were in Oklahoma City after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in 1995 by a domestic terrorist, and in Seattle after a 2002 earthquake.

Government aid to religious organizations was acceptable in those instances because it was provided in the context of a broadly available program and with criteria that are neutral toward religion and pose no risk of favoritism.

It's a sensible formulation that protects religious liberty without penalizing places of worship damaged by Sandy, or their devastated communities.