BY U.S. CONGRESSMEMBER GRACE MENG
When Sandy slammed into our region late last year, homes, businesses and mass transit systems were not the only things devastated by the storm.
More than 200 houses of worship throughout the tri-state area – including many here in Queens – were damaged or destroyed as well.
But when these churches, synagogues, mosques and temples applied for disaster aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), their requests were denied because houses of worship are barred from receiving such assistance.
This is wrong and unconscionable. It discriminates against houses of worship – many of which fed, comforted and provided shelter to thousands of people who were adversely impacted by Sandy – and it unfairly treats these institutions differently from other nonprofit entities.
That is why I have spearheaded an effort to change this misguided policy.
After an unsuccessful attempt to attach an amendment onto the Sandy aid package, I joined forces with Congressmembers Chris Smith and Peter King to sponsor legislation that would add houses of worship to the government’s list of private nonprofit organizations that qualify for FEMA assistance.
Working with my two colleagues – and other Republicans and Democrats – in a concerted bipartisan manner, we were able to pass our bill by an overwhelming margin of 354-72.
Although there are some who oppose this legislation due to concerns over the separation of church and state, their worries are without merit. There are precedents for federal aid to disaster-damaged houses of worship. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide assistance to the area’s damaged churches. In 2002, after an earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department intervened to order FEMA to assist religious organizations that were impacted by the disaster.
The measure is supported by numerous local and national organizations including: the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, American Jewish Committee, New York City Council and Speaker Christine Quinn, Jewish Federations of North America, the Most Rev. William Murphy – Bishop of Rockville Centre, the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, National Association of Evangelicals, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, United Jewish Appeal (UJA) of N.Y. and numerous newspapers and editorial boards.
Now that the legislation has passed the House, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has agreed to take it up in the Senate. I call on all my colleagues there to support it, and I’ve sent a letter to key senators urging them to schedule a vote on the measure.
Sandy was one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. Many houses of worship remain in desperate need of repair, and are still struggling to reopen. It is vital that these facilities be allowed to collect disaster funds from FEMA so that they can rebuild their properties and once again offer critical services to the individuals and communities that need them.
Synagogues, churches and temples cannot wait any longer. The time is now to make this legislation the law of the land. For the facilities that continue to wait, it cannot come soon enough.
U.S. Congressmember Grace Meng is a freshman Democrat representing Queens.
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