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Controversial FEMA Rule Frustrates Religious Organizations

The Jewish Daily Forward reports that “separation of church and state” issues are barring many houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy from receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds, but different interpretations of the regulation are calling that policy into question.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are unclear whether or not the Constitution’s prohibition on government aid to religious groups applies in the case of disaster aid.  Some say that granting such aid may violate the First Amendment.

According to FEMA spokesman Ed Conley certain not-for-profit institutions that provide essential public services, such as schools or homeless shelters, are eligible for aid even if they are affiliated with a religious institution.

Complicating matters is the fact that if an applicant wishes for FEMA aid and assistance from the Small Business Administration, the applicant must file separate applications, but the FEMA application must be filed first as the SBA application requires a FEMA registration number.

A New York Times article articulated the two opposing positions on the FEMA aid for religious organizations.  On the left, Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, “I think that challenges would be inevitable if you started to reconstruct religious buildings with federal or state tax dollars.”  Representing religious groups, Marc D. Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, stated that aid “distributed under a neutral program of storm relief” could be made available constitutionally in part because “there is a strong societal interest in aid to all who have suffered damage.”

Legislation that explicitly named houses of worship as appropriate FEMA aid recipients was not included in the amendments considered before the aid bill passed.  The bill is H.R. 41.

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