Disasters Know No Religion


When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the Missouri could provide funds to a church in Columbia to make its playground safer, winds of change began to blow around the meaning of the First Amendment.

Then came a series of storms that devastated parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other areas, and the wind grew to hurricane force with the question of how much federal government aid should go to rebuild houses of worship.

Now, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, with the support of his Democratic colleague Claire McCaskill, has introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, legislation that would make houses of worship eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help recover from the storms. The bill deserves approval.

Clearly, the wall separating church and state was not totally blown down by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Missouri church case. Some have interpreted the 7-2 opinion that way, applauding the court for saying that denying the church’s eligibility for the money solely because it is a religious institution violates the First Amendment.  Some Orthodox Jewish organizations and day schools also interpret the opinion in that expansive way.

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But the majority was fractured in how far the ruling should go. A footnote to the majority opinion specifically said that it was limited to “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” rather than being a blanket rejection of longstanding practice and precedent.

In their arguments, lawyers for the Columbia church had pointed out that religious organizations already receive government aid in terms of fire and police protection. Others have noted that anti-terrorist grants from the federal government commonly go to religious groups. So, they say, the court simply expanded such efforts to using public money for a softer playground surface.

How does the question of federal aid to houses of worship fit into a more nuanced approach to the Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion but no official establishment of any religion? Announcing his legislation, Blunt expressed his reasoning this way:

“Houses of worship provide vital support services during natural disasters, including food, comfort, shelter and much more. It is imperative that they have the resources they need to recover and rebuild.”

Currently, Blunt said, houses of worship may not receive FEMA public aid grants that provide money to pay for the repair, reconstruction or replacement of private, nonprofit facilities. 

Changing that prohibition makes sense and is a reasonable justification for the use of public funds for a religious institution, while keeping the broader separation of church and state intact.

It’s not easy to pinpoint precisely, on a line from a cushioned playground to hurricane relief, where government help to houses of worship is constitutional. But the relief needed after this year’s storms clearly deserves serious consideration. The Jewish community is not monolithic on church-state separation, although historically American Jews strongly favor a strict wall of separation. 

The pending legislation deserves careful study with both sides offering cogent reasons why the bill should or should not be enacted. The Jewish Light will review the full text of the bill before deciding whether it is in the interest of the Jewish community to support or oppose it.