By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Two lawmakers are on opposite sides of a debate over whether churches and other religious institutions should receive federal disaster relief funds.
US Rep. Michael Grimm (R-C-Brooklyn-Staten Island) said he voted in favor of a bill called the Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 that would allow churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples to be eligible for disaster relief aid. It would put houses of worship on a level playing field with other nonprofit organizations seeking disaster assistance, according to Grimm, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.
But US Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Brooklyn-Manhattan) said he reluctantly voted against the bill, even though religious institutions need the help, because he believes it violates the separation of church and state as outlined in the Constitution.
The bill passed the house by a vote of 354-72 on Feb. 13.
“So many places of worship were severely damaged when Superstorm Sandy ravaged our coastlines. This bill will put them on a level playing field with other nonprofits by allowing them to apply for disaster assistance,” Grimm said.
“This is not about religious favoritism, but about providing aid to repair structural damage to places that employ local residents and provide crucial services to those in need throughout our communities,” Grimm said.
The Staten Island portion of Grimm’s congressional district sustained devastating damage in Hurricane Sandy. Communities like New Dorp are still struggling to recover.
The Nonprofit Fairness Act seeks to clarify that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief program, is a general government program under which federal assistance following a natural disaster can be rendered using criteria that are neutral with regard to religion.
The bill has been endorsed by the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, the United Jewish Appeal, and by elected officials like Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
“The purpose of the bill is laudable. Unfortunately, it has real constitutional problems," Nadler said.
Nadler, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said funding religious institutions would be in direct violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“This bill would provide direct cash grants to rebuild houses of worship,” Nadler said. “Direct government funding of churches, synagogues, and mosques has always been held to be unconstitutional, and the decisions of the Supreme Court establishing that principle remain good law to this day,” he said.
Like Grimm, Nadler has constituents who were devastated by the Oct. 29 super-storm. The Coney Island section of Nadler’s congressional district was among the hardest hit areas in the city.