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The bill is expected to face a stiffer challenge in the Senate. Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president of federal affairs for Agudah, wrote in an email, “Our work is by no means finished,” adding that proponents of the bill will have to educate members “both in terms of the law and the need.” If the bill is passed, groups like Agudah would monitor FEMA’s implementation of the legislation. Cohen said FEMA “has not been supportive of the effort,” so far.
“It could take months — sometimes years — for the funding to flow to where it’s needed,” Cohen said.
If passed, another complex issue will be deciding under what guidelines a building will be classified as a house of worship. Sarna noted that throughout the country, there are nontraditional locations that are used for worship, like Chabad houses, or home-based gatherings among Protestants.
“Suddenly, there’s a question of whether we are going to discriminate in favor of religions that can afford to have a dedicated house of worship,” Sarna said. “This particular law will require government to make very complicated decisions about what is and is not legitimate religious worship space.
“On that basis, it may well be that the courts will decide that the law doesn’t pass constitutional muster, but that’s way into the future and will probably be triggered by some group that will put in for reimbursement and be informed that they are not eligible. Then they will say they’re being discriminated against.”
In addition to Nadler, Rep.Robert C. Scott of Virginia spoke out against the legislation, saying it would violate “years of established legal precedence.” Scott said programs are already available to provide help for religious groups, such as the small business loan program. The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the proposal.
In a statement released earlier this year, the ADL said it had “real concerns about opening the door to direct government funding for houses of worship,” and that a “taxpayer should not have to fund a religion or a religious institution with which he or she disagrees.”
In the Rockaways, in Queens, Rabbi Marjorie Slome has incurred more than $1 million in damages to West End Temple. She said she was “delighted” to hear that the House passed the legislation. Slome was not looking for money to replace Torahs or prayer books, but to rebuild a facility that hosts meetings of Boy and Girl Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous and other secular civic groups.
“I understand the arguments of those against it, but to me, this is a special situation,” Slome said. “I don’t know if this is going to help my synagogue, but maybe next time, when another natural disaster like this happens, it will be a lot less difficult to fight this battle.”