Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Groups Ask: Will Katrina Relief Effort Open Door to Faith-based Expansion?

September 14, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Concern is mounting among some Jewish groups that the massive federal-relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will become a launching pad for expanding faith-based initiatives and that some Jewish institutions might take federal money. Congress already has approved $62.3 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast region devastated by the late-August hurricane. Jewish groups say they expect the Bush administration to encourage faith-based groups to vie for some of that aid, which is available through Cabinet agencies.

Synagogues and Jewish day schools that have set up shelters and other relief services will have to determine whether to accept the aid, and Jewish sites battered by the hurricane will have to decide whether to accept assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There also is concern among liberal groups that future aid packages could contain specific provisions or grants for sectarian groups to provide government-funded relief efforts. That would put many Jewish groups and other opponents of faith-based initiatives in the unenviable position of opposing disaster relief.

“Obviously, Katrina will focus attention on the role of the faith-based community, because they have so magnificently stepped up to the plate,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

But, he said, the millions of private dollars religious groups have raised to date suggest that religious charities don’t need federal aid.

Several Jewish groups worked to block legislation in President Bush’s first term that would have allowed religious charities to compete with nonsectarian groups for federal aid. But the administration has circumvented Congress, creating offices in numerous Cabinet agencies to foster faith-based initiatives.

Liberal activists in the Jewish community fear there will be more opportunities for these groups to receive aid in Katrina’s aftermath and that safeguards will be relaxed to expedite relief. That could set a dangerous precedent, they said.

“We’re not going to sit on our hands, but it’s difficult because we all feel the same about the human-needs aspect of this tragedy,” said Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

At the same time, the Bush administration also set a precedent in 2002 by allowing the Seattle Hebrew Academy to receive FEMA aid after it was damaged by an earthquake a year earlier. Religious sites will be eligible for disaster assistance in the wake of Katrina, and many in the Jewish community view those programs as constitutional and proper.

“We decided we are not taking a formal position and letting our congregations decide for themselves,” Saperstein said, adding that most synagogues in the New Orleans area had good insurance plans, including flood coverage, and may not need federal aid.

Many Jewish groups consistently oppose faith-based initiatives because they say such initiatives violate the separation of church and state. Specifically, they fear religious charities will proselytize with federal funding or discriminate against nonbelievers. They also say religious groups should not be allowed to receive exemptions from hiring- discrimination laws if they receive federal aid.

Jewish groups have struggled for some time to define what is a tolerable level of federal aid. Many groups advocated last year for federal aid for homeland-security appropriations for synagogues and other Jewish sites deemed high-risk terrorist targets. The Reform movement and the Anti-Defamation League, however, said that even that aid raised constitutional-policy questions.

Jewish social-service organizations routinely accept government aid; the church-state questions are limited to sectarian institutions, including synagogues and religious schools.

Orthodox groups take a different view, and the Orthodox Union has been an advocate for federal funding of faith-based initiatives.

“Many religious social-welfare groups are already on the ground,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs. “They should be made equal partners.”

The Conservative movement has not yet discussed the issue of federal aid, said Mark Waldman, the director of public policy for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He said the organization and its partners have focused on relief efforts, deferring discussion of payments until later.

Jewish groups say their concern about faith-based initiatives doesn’t focus on FEMA, which long has operated in partnership with religious charities during natural disasters. FEMA guidelines state that charities that receive aid can’t discriminate in providing assistance.

The concern is focused on other agencies, such as the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, all of which have sought out religious charities in recent years.

“There may be a temptation to use the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to forward unconstitutional and discriminatory provisions of faith-based initiatives,” Lieberman said. “We will resist any effort to use this tragedy to promote these suspect provisions.”

Jewish leaders say they hope the focus on Katrina will expedite other legislation that could benefit the Jewish community.

The Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act would make charitable giving smoother by increasing tax incentives and easing donations from Individual Retirement Accounts.

Stephan Kline, the director of government affairs for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the North American Jewish federations, said he believed some elements of the act could be included in future Katrina-related appropriations.

The current CARE Act proposal does not include “equal treatment provisions” that indicate support for faith-based initiatives. Those measures were in previous versions.

Diament said he also hoped the disaster would expedite efforts to codify into law changes that President Bush has made to FEMA regulations.

The Disaster Relief Equity Act would allow private, nonprofit facilities to receive disaster aid. It has been put forward by Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), and officials say the legislation could get increased attention because Jindal represents Louisiana.

“It’s just making clear that day schools in New Orleans would be eligible for FEMA dollars,” Diament said.

Recommended from JTA