As early as Wednesday, the House of Representatives may be taking up legislation that will make it easier for “houses of worship“ and religious schools to receive federal disaster relief. The bill, H.R. 592, the “Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013,” was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY).
On Tuesday, Agudath Israel of America sent out a press release strongly encouraging all members of the community to call their representatives and urge them to vote for this legislation.
Background of This Legislative Effort
Over the years — most recently, during Hurricane Sandy — Agudath Israel of America and other religious community groups have been engaged in helping to ensure that religious institutions obtain a full measure of FEMA disaster relief funds. However, due to severe limitations placed on how and when disaster assistance may be provided to religious entities — including houses of worship and religious schools — this has been an ongoing challenge. Shuls and yeshivos affected by natural disasters have not always been able to receive the federal aid they need for repair and restoration.
A coalition has been pursuing several avenues with the Obama Administration and on Capitol Hill to address this issue, based on Supreme Court decisions and executive action in recent years that have allowed federal aid to go to religious institutions when the assistance is made broadly available and is distributed on a religion-neutral basis — as FEMA does.
Reps. Smith and Meng have introduced legislation that will include houses of worship within the categories of nonprofits eligible to receive FEMA aid and make clear that religious institutions must not be denied such funding because of the “religious character” or the “primary religious use” of the damaged facilities.
Religious institutions are an integral part of the fabric of American communities, and play an important role in assisting devastated neighborhoods revitalize and rebuild. After natural disasters, they provide both material and nonmaterial help to those in need. Since there is no constitutional impediment to providing disaster relief to religious institutions, they should be treated like other vital nonprofits and receive federal assistance without prejudice or discrimination.
All voters are urged to contact both the Washington Office and District Office of your congressperson and convey your support promptly for this measure. Voters can reach them at their offices directly or through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.