Religious institutions deserve a fair shake

Scores of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which would make religious institutions eligible for disaster relief funding. This is a common sense move that would keep the decisions about who receives government aid neutral with regard to religion –  granting churches, synagogues, mosques and temples the right to apply for federal assistance in the wake of a disaster.

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan coalition of representatives from New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is well named – because it really is about fairness. Federal assistance is already granted to other non-profits, including museums, cultural centers and schools, all of which deliver essential services that the government would be otherwise responsible for providing to its citizens. Religious institutions deserve the same designation. Many of them provide vital social services such as soup kitchens, food pantries, libraries and schools.  In fact, many churches and synagogues in New York and New Jersey have been on the front lines since the storm, helping to provide basic needs to all storm victims in their communities, regardless of religious affiliation.

NYLAG knows firsthand the plight of New York religious organizations whose operations and facilities were damaged by Sandy. Our Storm Response Unit has fielded requests for assistance from over 70 sectarian and non-sectarian organizations thus far. In the early days post-Sandy we presented a well-attended training, specifically designed to educate nonprofits and answer their legal questions. We proactively reached out to offer assistance to all types of institutions affected by the storm.  Our priority has been to encourage every organization to apply for federal benefits, even if their eligibility is not yet clear. This remains critically important, whether or not the Fairness Act becomes law. The FEMA deadline for applications is now Wednesday, February 27. Please join with NYLAG in making sure that every organization affected by the storm submits an initial application for FEMA assistance. For more information, call our Storm Hotline at 212-584-3365 or visit [email protected]

I hope that the Nonprofit Fairness Act receives swift attention and affirmative passage in the US Senate so that religious institutions can access the same FEMA funding and Small Business Administration loans that other non-profit organizations are eligible to receive.  In the short term, our communities need every asset available to recover from Sandy.  Going forward, every nonprofit organization contributing to improving the quality of life in our nation deserves to know that when disaster strikes, their rights are recognized and will be protected.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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