FEMA on the Bimah?

Editorial

courtesy of temple israel

Published December 03, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 3)

They do not have to abide by certain civil rights laws and can, for example, discriminate in hiring, so that the Orthodox shul can’t be subject to a lawsuit if it doesn’t hire the lesbian rabbi. These institutions do not have to disclose the salaries of their top officials or other information about their financial operations, and are allowed to bypass the public transparency required of other tax-exempt groups.

These protections aren’t just niceties. They acknowledge the special role religion plays in our society, and prevent government from becoming excessively entangled in the practices of these faith institutions, precisely what the First Amendment is supposed to guarantee.

Like any privilege in this society, however, this specialness can be abused — and it has been, by clergy who earn fantastic sums of money without any obligation of disclosure, for instance. Or, in a more generous light, these protections allow faith institutions to ignore certain norms and expectations of society — by openly discriminating according to gender, race or sexuality, for another example.

Tax-exempt organizations are so designated because they fulfill a secular purpose for the good of us all. The doctrine of neutrality obligates faith institutions to use public money for secular purposes, too: to restore the street facade of a synagogue but not its sanctuary; to fix the ordinary, not the sacred. But where to draw the line?

That question has bedeviled the federal government’s faith-based initiative ever since it was created in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. And if the Obama administration extends the purview of FEMA to include houses of worship, the difficulty of drawing the line will be there, too. How do you avoid using public money for a pervasively religious purpose when helping a synagogue that exists for a pervasively religious purpose?

And if the trend continues and expands, allowing churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to apply for more and more federal funding, will their position of distinctiveness be diminished? Will they be entangled with more paperwork, more government oversight and more pressure to conform to the norms and practices of other nonprofits?

Our hearts go out to the suffering congregations, and it’s impossible to say they shouldn’t receive the kind of help only government is able to provide. But context matters. History matters. These FEMA grants could be a one-time, extraordinary measure, or could be another step in a fraught process that moves the boundary between religion and state to an unwelcome place.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.