The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy to receive federal disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The House voted 354-72 for the bill, which now goes to the Senate. Houses of worship would be added to the federal government’s list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for FEMA aid to help rebuild under the measure. Critics said it goes against the constitutional separation of church and state.
Backers of the bill say hundreds of houses of worship were damaged in the storm and that many of them continued to serve their stricken communities providing help such as shelter and food.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Grace Meng (D-NY), and co-sponsored by Peter King (R-NY), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), allows houses of worship to seek grants from FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which helps pay for rebuilding, restoring power and other immediate storm-related needs.
“This is not about religious favoritism, but about providing aid to repair structural damage to places that employ local residents and provide crucial services to those in need throughout our communities,” said Rep. Grimm.
“These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage,” said Smith.
Rep. Peter King said religious institutions deserve the same treatment as other non-profit organizations. “They shouldn’t be penalized just because of their religious involvement,” said King.
However, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), said there were “real constitutional problems” with using taxpayer dollars to rebuild structures such as religious sanctuaries and altars that are not used by the general public. He complained the bill was rushed to a vote a few days after it was filed, without any hearings or consideration by the Judiciary Committee.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposed the bill. “A fundamental rule of American life is that congregants, not the taxpayers, pay for the construction and repair of houses of worship. We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state,” Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said in a statement.
The ACLU also opposed the bill. “Religious liberty starts from the precept that religion thrives when both religion and government are safeguarded from the undue influences of the other,” said Dena Sher, legislative counsel for the group.
There was more than $11 billion ticketed for FEMA’s disaster relief fund in the overall $50.5 billion Sandy aid package that Congress approved last month and was signed into law by President Obama.
Supporters said there is precedent for houses of worship receiving federal aid. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide aid to damaged churches, and after a 2002 earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department directed FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.
The Smith-Meng bill stipulates that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is a general government program under which federal assistance following a natural disaster can be rendered using criteria that are neutral with regard to religion.
“Throughout the disaster, faith communities served the needs of their devastated neighborhoods, providing such things as hot food, warm clothes and shelter, even though many of those houses of worship were themselves severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy,” said Smith, whose congressional district in Ocean and Monmouth counties was hit hard. “These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage. …. Religious organizations have received federal support in other disasters and for homeland security upgrades, and helping in this disaster should be no different.”
Said Meng, prior to the vote, “Three-and-a-half months since the storm wreaked havoc on our region, houses of worship — and the millions of Americans who benefit from the social services these institutions provide — continue to be denied the same treatment that is afforded to other non-profit entities. This is unfair, wrong and must change.”
Congressman Engel said, “Many [religious organizations] were the only shelter available to people who lost their homes. As the rest of the northeast recovers, these vital communal institutions must recover also.”
Agudath Israel of America hailed passage of the bill.
In recent months, after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, a coalition of religious groups pursued with the Obama Administration and on Capitol Hill several avenues to address this issue.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Government Affairs and Washington Director, who was very active in the effort, said Wednesday’s vote “brings us closer to greater fairness and equity for religious institutions that have been devastated by natural disasters and suddenly face formidable costs.”
“Religious institutions are an integral part of American communities and play an important role in helping devastated neighborhoods revitalize and rebuild. After natural disasters, they provide both material and nonmaterial help to those in need. They should receive federal relief in the same manner other nonprofits are afforded such assistance, without prejudice or discrimination,” Rabbi Cohen continued.
The National Council of Young Israel also lauded the decision by Congress.