House Bails Out Churches Damaged by Hurricane Sandy


||| CREDIT: Pete Souza, Whitehouse.gov
CREDIT: Pete Souza, Whitehouse.gov

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was earning media hi-fives last month for berating House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) about holding up federal aid for Hurricane Sandy, my skeptical heart, shaped as it has been by Glenn Garvin's classic 1993 Reason piece on Hurricane Andrew, began wondering: What kind of unprecedented government overreach will this spigot bring?

Here's one example from today's New York Times–"House Approves Storm Aid for Religious Institutions":

The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow the use of federal money to rebuild churches and synagogues damaged by  Hurricane Sandy, despite concern that such aid could violate the doctrine of separation of church and state. […]

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has generally refused to provide grants to rebuild houses of worship. In some cases, federal aid can be used to reimburse houses of worship for social services they provide, and houses of worship can sometimes qualify for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

The House bill adds houses of worship to the list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for disaster relief. Federal law already allows such aid to museums, zoos, performing-arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters and other private nonprofit entities that provide "essential services of a governmental nature to the general public."

The House bill would apply to property damaged by the storm and damage from future disasters.

Under the bill, "a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization," would be eligible for federal disaster assistance "without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility."

Representative Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey, the bill's chief sponsor, said, "It's unconscionable that pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy — synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship — have been categorically denied access to otherwise generally available relief funds."

And so it begins.

Read Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey on "Separating Church and State Money."