The impact Superstorm Sandy had on homes, businesses, nonprofits, and houses of worship across the Northeast was devastating. And still, in the wake of the storm, these institutions reached out to their communities to provide the help they could. At the same time, they began the process of their own rebuilding; for congregations, this meant repairing their sanctuaries and sacred spaces.
After a disaster, businesses and nonprofits often look to government assistance to help rebuild damaged property. Despite the talk in the past couple of months about how these government assistance programs discriminate against houses of worship, they don't. All nonprofit organizations (including houses of worship) and for-profit businesses can get low-interest, long-term, government-secured loans -- up to $2 million -- for losses not fully covered by insurance. Direct FEMA grants of taxpayer funds, however, are intended to serve a certain purpose—those grants are for nonprofits with facilities used for emergency, essential, and government-like activities to the community at large. Houses of worship, just like the many other nonprofit facilities, aren't then eligible to receive FEMA grants. Today, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 592, the so-called Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, a bill that would upend this well-established policy to explicitly permit FEMA to funnel taxpayer funds to houses of worship.
FEMA's policy not only ensures that FEMA grants are used to rebuild facilities that provide the most critical services to the entire community, but also reflects an important constitutional principle. Religious liberty is one of our nation's most fundamental values and it starts from the precept that religion and religious institutions thrive when both religion and government are safeguarded from the undue influences of the other.