WASHINGTON — Religious schools and other private, nonprofit organizations that provide government-type services are eligible for federal grants and loans to rebuild facilities damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Bush administration said yesterday.
"President Bush believes that hurricanes, floods and earthquakes don't discriminate on the basis of religion and that government's response to them should not either," said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Towey said the policy permitting such federal disaster aid had been in effect since 2002, when Bush changed Federal Emergency Management Agency rules to allow a $550,000 grant to rebuild a Hebrew school in Seattle that was destroyed in an earthquake.
Bush ordered the policy change after a Justice Department review determined that providing federal disaster assistance to rebuild the Hebrew school would not violate the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.
The Justice Department "felt this was analogous to providing them with police and fire protection," Towey said.
Barry Lynn, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the policy change had never been challenged in court but was of dubious constitutional merit.
"If it's a religious building, in general, the courts have not allowed the use of tax dollars to build it or renovate it," Lynn said, "and a natural disaster does not destroy basic constitutional principles."
Bush has been pushing to expand government funding for faith-based initiatives since taking office nearly six years ago, but has met resistance in Congress. Supporters have suggested that churches' role in helping hurricane victims may ease that opposition.
Towey said the White House has received numerous inquiries about federal reconstruction aid from Catholic Church officials in New Orleans, where roughly half the students attend parochial schools, and from Orthodox Jewish groups and Christian evangelical groups.
"The aftershocks of the Seattle Hebrew Academy policy will be felt now in the Gulf states, as we make sure that any of the faith-based educational facilities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, critical care facilities ... know they are eligible to participate," he said.
Towey said state emergency offices in each of the states would hold meetings to help such groups apply. He said they would be eligible for FEMA grants only for facility losses not covered by insurance or by disaster loans available from the Small Business Administration.
For mixed-use buildings, Towey said eligibility would be determined by the facility's primary use. A community center that housed a job-training program during the week and was used for worship services on the weekend probably would be eligible, he said, but buildings used primarily for religious worship services would not.