Hurricane Sandy flooded and battered St. George Malankara Orthodox Church of India in New Dorp, Staten Island, ruining its basement, windows and doors. Yet, when its vicar contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ask for a grant to help with the estimated $150,000 rebuilding cost, he said he got a clear answer: No.
“FEMA said that they considered the church a business, so they offered us a loan,” the Rev. Alex K. Joy said in an interview about a month after the storm. “But we don’t want a loan. We have 400 members, 90 families. In this situation, we need some assistance.”
A broad range of private nonprofit organizations qualify for federal disaster assistance grants, including zoos, museums, performing arts centers and libraries. Houses of worship, however, are not on the list, even though in recent years the federal government has ruled that some religiously affiliated institutions like schools and hospitals can get grants.
An effort is under way to change that, led by several Jewish organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the American Jewish Committee. Last month, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, introduced an amendment to the multibillion-dollar Hurricane Sandy recovery appropriations bill that would explicitly place houses of worship on the list of qualified organizations. But because of an unrelated bipartisan deal meant to ease the bill’s passage, that amendment was locked out of consideration.
Mr. Lieberman’s tenure in the Senate ended this week, but Nathan Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Institute for Public Affairs at the Orthodox Union, said he was continuing to work with other lawmakers to add the amendment to the bill before it came again before Congress.
“Houses of worship should not be discriminated against and excluded from getting assistance on the same terms as other eligible nonprofits,” he said.
Mr. Diament has also been meeting with officials from the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies to see if the change can be made without legislative action. FEMA regulations are silent on the matter of houses of worship, so a bureaucratic decision may be all that is required, he added.
Yet the issue is controversial, because the constitutional separation of church and state generally bans the use of tax money to build religious institutions. Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization had “serious concerns” about the effort to change the policy and was monitoring the situation.
“To rebuild houses of worship is a form of compelled support for religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect against,” Ms. Sher said. “We understand and identify with the serious difficulties everyone is facing, but we can’t let this misfortune be used as a premise to erode these bedrock principles.”