The federal government will help rebuild parochial schools, nursing homes and similar religious institutions but will not pay for reconstruction of churches or other houses of worship destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, administration officials said yesterday.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Southern Baptist Convention and other religious groups are believed to have suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage from the hurricane. Many have been asking what help the government will provide, said H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Towey announced in a conference call to reporters that religious groups that run "essential, government-type facilities" can apply for reconstruction grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In addition to schools and nursing homes, he listed assisted-living facilities and community centers as the kind of institutions that FEMA would pay to rebuild. Churches, mosques and synagogues are not eligible, he said.
"I just want to make it clear that any facility that's used primarily for inherently religious activities is not going to be covered," Towey said.
The reaction from religious groups was mixed. Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the policy "shows an awareness that Catholic schools perform an important public service, including the education of children who are not Catholic."
But the Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said he did not understand the administration's logic.
"Religious schools at the K through 12 level are almost always pervasively religious in the same way that houses of worship are, and I think for purposes of government funding should be treated the same," he said. "The government cannot pay to build them, and it should not pay to rebuild them."
Robert A. Destro, director of the program in law and religion at the Catholic University of America, predicted that the administration's decision "will not satisfy anyone." Many religious congregations, he said, will feel that "we're citizens too, so if you're rebuilding, let's rebuild everything."
Until three years ago, FEMA would not have paid to repair religious schools. The Bush administration changed the policy beginning with a $550,000 grant in 2002 to the Seattle Hebrew Academy, a private school devastated by an earthquake. "The aftershocks of the Seattle Hebrew Academy policy will be felt now in the gulf states," Towey said.
Before receiving federal funds, religious groups must exhaust private insurance coverage and apply for disaster loans from the Small Business Administration.
After that, Towey said, there is no cap on how much FEMA can provide per grant; the only limit is the amount of money appropriated by Congress for disaster relief, about $62 billion so far.
Separately, FEMA officials previously promised to reimburse churches and other religious groups that shelter and feed hurricane victims at the request of state or local officials. President Bush also has supported proposals in Congress to provide tuition vouchers that displaced students could use to reimburse public or private schools.