WASHINGTON — Agudath Israel of America, a national grassroots Orthodox Jewish organization, is applauding congressional passage of a bipartisan budget bill that enables and enhances the eligibility of houses of worship and religious schools in regard to FEMA-administered disaster aid. Agudath Israel has been one of a small number of groups that have, for over five years, been in the forefront of this legislative effort and played a key role in this change.
“This is a profoundly important step forward for equal treatment of religious institutions,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director. “With this change, they will no longer be unfairly treated as ‘second class citizens’ in regard to disaster relief aid. Ultimately, the beneficiaries will be the communities they serve.”
Under FEMA policy existing at the time, houses of worship were denied disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters, including most recently Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Despite considerable advocacy by religious groups who argued that the policy distinguishing houses of worship from other nonprofits was discriminatory, FEMA maintained that houses of worship were not explicitly included in the federal program and were, per se, ineligible to receive the aid.
But after President Donald Trump expressed to Congress his view that houses of worship should be considered eligible to receive disaster relief, FEMA announced last month that, based on a recent Supreme Court ruling, it was revising its policy and would begin accepting their aid applications. Nevertheless, congressional supporters and groups active on the issue agreed that legislation was still necessary, so that the new FEMA policy would be enshrined in law and not be revoked or revised by future administrations.
Furthermore, while FEMA changed its policy in regard to houses of worship, it left intact the ineligibility of schools that were of a “religious character” or “of primary religious use.” This concern grew when FEMA indicated that the existing legislative proposal would not be enough to address the religious schools issue. “Though some Jewish schools have survived this test and have received FEMA aid, there is no question that many of our institutions – including yeshivos gedolos on the higher education level, as well as a growing percentage of elementary and secondary yeshiva day schools – might not be deemed eligible for disaster relief.”
“After working with Jewish schools for over two decades on FEMA-related problems, I knew we couldn’t let it stand,” Rabbi Cohen added. “It is vitally important, whether in this or other programs, that they equally and consistently receive the full benefit and protection of our laws.”
In the month leading up to passage, Agudath Israel worked intensively with the White House, FEMA, congressional sponsors and other religious school advocates, in bringing the problem to their attention, clarifying issues, answering questions and suggesting legislative approaches and language. In the end, Congress passed legislation that explicitly removed the respective restrictions on both houses of worship and religious schools..
“We owe enormous thanks to the Vice President’s Office, the White House Counsel’s Office and FEMA, as well as to Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Grace Meng (D-NY), and to Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX) and James Lankford (R-OK).”