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.’ ”
Despite the strength of its House approval, the bill has stirred controversy, but the divisions are novel: Instead of the classic disagreements engendered by church-state arguments, this one has liberal Democrats disagreeing and the two major Jewish civil rights groups on opposite sides.
The American Jewish Committee joined lobbying on behalf of the bill along with a number of other Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Jewish Federations of North America. The Anti-Defamation League is opposed. The Reform movement, meanwhile, has been careful not to take a position, noting its disagreement with such funding in the past but not weighing in this time.
“In general, we have serious constitutional concerns about this type of funding,” Sean Thibault, a spokesman for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a Jan. 10 statement. “However, we recognize that this aid is, in certain respects, distinct from other forms of aid that we have historically opposed. We continue to work with congregations to help them understand the varied constitutional and policy concerns before each synagogue makes their own decisions.”