Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Federal Aid For Religious Institutions In Murky Waters After Sandy

Torahs are draped on chairs and tables at Temple Israel of Long Beach, N.Y. The synagogue was flooded during Superstorm Sandy, but hasn't received federal aid.
Temple Israel
Torahs are draped on chairs and tables at Temple Israel of Long Beach, N.Y. The synagogue was flooded during Superstorm Sandy, but hasn't received federal aid.

More than 200 houses of worship damaged in Superstorm Sandy have applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But given the separation of church and state, it's unclear whether federal funds are available to them.

The sanctuary of Temple Israel of Long Beach, N.Y., was flooded with more than 10 feet of saltwater in some places, says Rabbi David Bauman.

"Roughly 5 to 7 feet [of water] in most, and there were surges — particularly in our mechanical room — that went upwards of 12 to 14 feet," he says.

It's warm inside the synagogue, but Bauman says this is a recent development. They just got their heat back.

The sanctuary is mostly undamaged, but every room downstairs has been gutted. All that is left of the religious school and recreation rooms are concrete floors and wooden beams.

One room has rolls and rolls of Torah scrolls, laid out like ribbons over dozens of chairs. The temple lost six Torahs and all the historical records of a 90-year-old synagogue.

Bauman says it will cost about $5 million to restore the buildings; the congregation has raised a couple hundred thousand so far.

Who Gets The Aid?

FEMA has told houses of worship to apply for aid. The federal agency has extended the deadline, but the rules are murky. Religious institutions are considered ineligible according to FEMA regulations. But if they run a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, or if they have community activities that are nonsectarian, they may be considered for federal aid.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says the federal government should not pay to repair or maintain houses of worship.

"The Supreme Court's drawn a pretty clear line about giving certain kinds of assistance to churches, but not allowing them to be paid to buy brick and mortar to construct or reconstruct their properties," he says. "I still think it's a good law, and I think it ought to be respected, even after the devastation of Sandy."

Nathan Diament disagrees. He's the executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, which represents nearly 1,000 congregations coast to coast.

"Perhaps that's the way Americans United or the ACLU would wish the First Amendment be interpreted, but that's not just the way it's interpreted right now," he says. "If the government is giving out money to nonprofits on a neutral basis, the government does not have to go out of its way to exclude religion or religious institutions from participating in that program."

Diament brings up all kinds of exceptions. When churches were damaged after the Oklahoma City bombing, federal aid was initially denied, but Congress enacted special legislation to aid the churches. Something similar took place in 2002, after an earthquake in Seattle. Government money has helped restore the California missions and a historic church in Boston. A federal appeals court said Detroit could aid churches during a restoration of downtown facades before the Super Bowl.

Diament's organization is talking to the Obama administration, seeking clarification of FEMA's grant rules. He says that as of Feb. 1 in New York alone, 86 houses of worship have individually registered with FEMA, while 125 Catholic churches are filing together.

Maintaining Sanctity

Not all clergy take Diament's position. Rev. Mark Lukens of the Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway argues that preventing the entanglement of religion and government protects religion more than it does government.

"When we take money from the government for our houses of worship for purely religious purposes, essentially what we are doing is we are allowing ourselves to be co-opted," he says.

It's like in the Gospel of Luke, he adds, when Satan offers Jesus the Kingdom of the World, and Jesus says, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only."

"We're supposed to be a moral voice in the public square," Lukens says, "and if we're receiving funds from the government, then that can neutralize that ability to be a moral voice. You can't bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak."

Still In Need

But as Bauman surveys his ravaged synagogue, he says no one is asking the government to buy prayer books or Torahs.

"I do think that the backbone of this country has been religious institutions of any kind ... of any flavor," he says.

He says he believes the government should not discriminate, but it should base its funding decisions solely on an assessment of the damage sustained in a disaster.

But, he adds, if it took three months for Congress to address the entire populace affected by Sandy, how much harder will it be to get money for something like this?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Margot Adler
Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career