A cross stands on the beach in Ocean Grove, N.J. / Tom Spader, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
KEANSBURG, N.J. -- Whether it be an overdue rent bill, a warm coat or a bag full of groceries, Project Paul has been there for Bayshore residents for more than 30 years.
But when the Keansburg-based religious charity went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for financial assistance after Superstorm Sandy caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages, officials say they got the run-around.
"We've always been a mini-FEMA for the community," said Sal Cortale, the group's executive director. "Now we're the ones who need help."
Despite working to help the region recover after Sandy, several faith-based groups in the area say FEMA has not sufficiently funded their own recovery efforts because of what the groups see as a misguided adherence to separating church and state.
"These groups have gotten the back of FEMA's hand," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives that would allow faith-based groups to follow the same FEMA reimbursement process as private nonprofit organizations.
In a rare example of bipartisanship, the House voted 354-72 in February to approve the bill. A Senate version awaits review by a subcommittee.
The bill has its critics.
Maggie Garrett, legislative director of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said regardless of the good intentions of religious groups, taxpayer dollars should not be used for repairing or replacing houses of worship such as churches, synagogues or mosques.
After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA similarly did not provide money to organizations seeking to repair damaged religious structures, Garrett said. Changing the policy now could easily add tens of millions of dollars in annual costs to an already bloated federal budget, she said.
"Once you start handing out money, it can be hard to figure out when you're paying for the religious and when you're paying for the non-religious," Garrett said. "Houses of worship should be maintained by the faithful, not by the taxpayer."
FEMA generally does not comment on pending legislation, said Dan Watson, a spokesman for the agency.
In the Senate, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has been assigned to take a look at the bill. The committee's chairman, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, has voiced opposition to the bill.
Several of the damaged structures that FEMA is not funding are part of parishes that served as community centers or meeting places for volunteers in the days after the storm, said James Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark.
"The FEMA money has not been available," Goodness said. "It would be extremely helpful. It would be a matter of justice."
In the Diocese of Trenton, overall damage to dozens of structures and properties are expected to total somewhere between $12 million to $15 million, said Joe Cahill, a business consultant for the diocese who serves as its liaison to FEMA.
At St. Rose in Belmar, approximate damage totaled $4 million at the high school, $350,000 at the rectory and $250,000 at the church, Cahill said.
"Everything was floating in water," Monsignor Edward J. Arnister of St. Rose said in June. "Everything was destroyed. We lost everything in the whole parish center."
At Sacred Heart Church in Bay Head, the church structure had $750,000 in damage, Cahill said.
While the diocese had flood insurance, it likely will need to pay for some of the damage from its coffers, Cahill said. The diocese used $1.8 million in donations raised through its website and by special Sunday collections on social services, not on repairing buildings, he said.
"We haven't received anything from FEMA," said Cahill, who expects only a handful of facilities will ultimately receive funds. "I'm still hopeful that we're going to get some assistance from them."
One of the more prominent regional cases of a faith-based organization struggling to access FEMA funds involves the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns much of the land in the Neptune oceanfront neighborhood.
The association sought FEMA funds toward repairing its boardwalk, a portion of which Sandy destroyed. FEMA has twice denied the request, citing not the association's religious affiliations, but that the federal agency does not pay for damages to what it deems to be recreational uses owned by private nonprofit organizations.
Garrett argues that the separation of church and state is a long-standing American belief that ultimately is about religious liberty: Citizens should not be required to give money to religions they may not necessarily support, she said. Similarly, many congregations may not want the government prying into their internal affairs or telling them what to do.
"Government money usually comes with government strings," Garrett said.
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