Local churches and synagogues may get a helping hand from the federal government, in the form of grants to repair damage they sustained in Hurricane Sandy. With a vote of 354-72, the House of Representatives approved legislation on Feb. 13 that would extend to houses of worship the same eligibility for federal disaster relief grants as any other nonprofit organization.
The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act must pass in the Senate and be signed by the president to become law. It is an amendment to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which generates and assigns funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief programs.
Under the new law, “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 money “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.” Current law permits federal disaster aid to nonprofit entities such as museums, libraries and performing arts centers but not houses of worship.
The opportunity to receive grant money was welcomed by Rabbi Steven M. Graber of Temple Hillel in North Woodmere, who said that the synagogue, like other Five Towns shuls, sustained substantial damage in Sandy, with water flooding the entire first floor. The walls had to be redone and the carpeting replaced, and the building was treated for mold.
“If it extends aid to our building, I’m all for it,” Graber said of the legislation, adding that, up to now, houses of worship were eligible only for low-interest Small Business Administration loans. In addition, there were some instances in which federal aid was used to reimburse churches for the social services they provided.