Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
URL: http://rac.org/PrintItem/index.cfm?id=1177&type=Articles
Reform Jewish Leader Seeks Clarification from FEMA Regarding News Report of Removal of Katrina’s Victims' Bodies Being Delayed for “Blessing”
In response to a recent report in Newsweek describing a requirement established by FEMA, and applied to contractors engaged in the work of recovering the bodies of Katrina victims, that chaplains bless recovered bodies, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent the following letter to FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison: noting, "Just as government may not establish religion among its citizenry, it may not impose prayer upon individuals after their passing. We want to know if that is, indeed, FEMA policy, and if not, what steps you are taking to clarify the policy for your staff."

Saperstein: Just as government may not establish religion among its citizenry, it may not impose prayer upon individuals after their passing. We want to know if that is, indeed, FEMA policy, and if not, what steps you are taking to clarify the policy for your staff.

Contact: Alexis Rice or Barbara Weinstein 202.387.2800

Washington, September 22, 2005 – In response to a recent report in Newsweek describing a requirement established by FEMA, and applied to contractors engaged in the work of recovering the bodies of Katrina victims, that chaplains bless recovered bodies, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent the following letter to FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison.

Dear Acting Director Paulison:

We are writing in reference to a troubling report in Newsweek magazine concerning FEMA and religious liberty. The past few weeks have brought FEMA unparalleled challenges. As the Hurricane Katrina recovery and reconstruction work moves forward, and as Texas prepares for Hurricane Rita, there is no doubt that FEMA’s hard-working staff is making a real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents.

It is, therefore, all the more troubling to read in a recent news report of a requirement established by FEMA, and applied to contractors engaged in the work of recovering the bodies of Katrina victims, that chaplains bless recovered bodies. This procedure was reported in a recent item in Newsweek (September 26, 2005; “Cash and 'Cat 5' Chaos”). That article is far from complete in its description of the facts, and we write today to seek clarification. Is there, in fact, a FEMA policy that recovered bodies must be “blessed” before they can be removed? If so, how, exactly, does it work? Is the crucial work of removing bodies being held up in any way? Are the family’s wishes being taken into consideration in any way? How do you evaluate constitutional issues involved in a government agency requiring religious activity in its contractor’s performance?

The report notes that an unnamed FEMA spokesperson, when questioned about the First Amendment issues raised by FEMA’s decision, stated “A prayer is not necessarily religious. Everybody prays." Prayer is an unambiguously religious act. Americans affected by Katrina practiced and continue to practice a diverse array of faiths or choose no faith at all. Just as government may not establish religion among its citizenry, it may not impose prayer upon individuals after their passing. We want to know if that is, indeed, FEMA policy, and if not, what steps you are taking to clarify the policy for your staff.

We know well from news reports, from our congregants in the region and from volunteers at our Jacobs’ Ladder relief center in Utica, Mississippi, that the work being done in the Gulf Coast is difficult and in many cases, heartbreaking. Above all, Americans and the government agencies that work on our behalf, particularly FEMA, must be committed to assisting Katrina’s victims to the best of our abilities. In so doing, we must be careful to be sensitive to their needs, both physical and spiritual, and respect the legal principles established by the Constitution and statute.

We look forward to your reply and clarification of FEMA’s position on this issue.

Sincerely,
/s/
Rabbi David Saperstein

###

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism , whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis , whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis .

All Content © Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism