Armed with a presidential tweet, a bill moving forward in Congress and a pending lawsuit, Jewish and Christian advocates believe they are on the verge of overturning a long-standing policy that has prohibited federal emergency funds from reaching houses of worship hit by natural disasters.
The public face of this campaign is Christian. A short video of Sister Margarett Ann, chainsaw in hand, cutting through branches from fallen trees outside a Miami school, went viral. Sister Margaret Ann was interviewed on cable news channels, and the “chainsaw nun,” as she is now referred to, also became the symbol of faith leaders working to heal hurricane-struck communities, while being denied access to federal help other non-for-profit organizations receive.
“We don’t wait for the local or federal government to step in. We just start helping those in need. But when we are in need ourselves after a disaster, the federal government tells us we cannot receive aid because we’re religious,” stated a group of four clergymen, two Christian and two Jewish, in a September 27 USA Today op-ed that used the story of the chainsaw nun to illustrate their struggle.
The campaign to amend the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s policy banning federal aid to houses of worship has brought together Christian groups, led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Orthodox Jewish denominations, pleading together for the right to access federal funds for reconstruction of churches and synagogues hit by Hurricane Harvey in Houston and by Irma in Florida. It is expected that more houses of worship will need help also in Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
In the years-long struggle to change the rules, which were put in place to avoid a challenge to the separation of church and state, activists are, for the first time, seeing signs of hope.
“We’re optimistic that there will be a change,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy at the Orthodox Union and one of the leading voices in the Jewish community advocating on the issue. “The responses I’ve gotten from people at the White House have been reassuring, but things take time in the federal bureaucracy.”
Advocates point to a confluence of factors that has made the situation ripe for change of the FEMA policy. Most significant was a September 8 tweet by President Trump, stating, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).” This tweet has since served as the basis for discussions with the Trump administration on changing the FEMA policy, a change that requires only a decision by the administration and does not even have to reach the presidential level. In addition, bills were introduced in both chambers, seeking to clarify that FEMA funds should be available for religious institutions in the future, too. On the judicial front, a lawsuit against FEMA seeks to force the government to explain why houses of worship are excluded.
In addition, a recent Supreme Court ruling from June determining that the government cannot cut off religious institutions from “a general program” aimed at the safety and health of the public could also help boost the legal case for FEMA funding. “The Supreme Court clarified the issue, and we think this case in an example of what the Supreme Court was talking about,” said Diana Verm, a counsel at the Becket Fund, a religious freedom advocacy group. Verm is representing three Houston-area churches suing the federal government in demand to be allowed to access the FEMA funding program for not-for-profit organizations hit by natural disaster.
“There’s a tremendous amount of momentum,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president of federal affairs at Agudath Israel of America, who has been working on the issue for decades. “All these things taken together are resulting in progress.”
When Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012, Jewish groups were in a similar position. With dozens of synagogues and religious institutions in New York and New Jersey suffering massive damages, they led a campaign to change FEMA funding rules, which ended with no results.
Now, with the White House occupied by a president who tweets sympathetically on the issue, and with a Supreme Court ruling weakening the prohibition on directing federal funds to religious institutions, the outcome could be different. And while a simple decision by the administration could reverse the policy, advocates would like to see the congressional process completed as well.
“We don’t want to face the same problem in the future,” Diament said. “Even if the Trump administration makes the change, we want to codify it for the next time.”
The effort is led by Orthodox groups with others Jewish organizations either supporting from the outside or keeping silent on the issue.
One of the lone voices opposing lifting the ban on federal emergency funds going to religious institutions is the Interfaith Alliance.
Rabbi Jack Moline, the group’s leader, called the change a “temptation to be avoided,” because it could lead to other policy shifts.
“An exception for FEMA, whether driven by genuine compassion or the religious right’s desire to mix church and state, would undercut religious liberty,” Moline saidin a statement following the Becket lawsuit in Texas.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman