Avi Schick: Separation of Church and State, Disaster Edition

One would have hoped that the Seattle opinion and common sense would be sufficient, but FEMA has apparently reverted to a position that provides less than full participation for religious institutions. Its reasons for doing so are not entirely clear but seem to include a mix of constitutional, statutory and regulatory concerns.

Many of these concerns should have been put to rest by the Oklahoma City experience and Congress’s approval of aid to religious organizations there. Nobody suggests that government should entirely rebuild sanctuaries or pay for the printing of prayer books. But if roofs are being repaired and other structural damage is being remediated, the religious nature of what might occur below shouldn’t matter. That is consistent with the reasoning of a 2003 Justice Department opinion that permitted the federal government to provide assistance to help restore the landmarked Old North Church in Boston.

In essence, federal disaster relief is a form of social insurance meant to help repair a tear in our social fabric. Houses of worship are an important part of that social fabric and are often where people turn for comfort and support after a disaster. After Hurricane Sandy, they are equally in need of repair and should be equally eligible for assistance.

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