On Wednesday, February 13, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 592), which would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act by including houses of worship among the private nonprofit facilities that are entitled to aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the president declares a major disaster, as he did after Superstorm Sandy.
The bill that will move on to the Senate for their approval, received a 354-72 vote in the House. Critics of the controversial measure have claimed it contravenes the constitutional separation of church and state clause.
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 by providing help such as shelter and food. They also cited a precedent for houses of worship receiving federal aid. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide aid to damaged churches, they said, and after an earthquake in Seattle in 2002, the Justice Department stepped in and directed FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.
The bill was supported by several religious organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Jewish Federations of North America.
Te wrath of Sandy was felt especially hard in New York and New Jersey, as it roared up the East Coast and pounded several states in late October. A recent National Hurricane Center report said it was the deadliest hurricane in the northeastern US in 40 years and the second-costliest in the nation’s history.
The measure was co-authored by Rep. Chris Smith, (R-NJ). and Rep. Grace Meng, (D-NY) will now afford houses of worship with the opportunity to apply for the FEMA disaster relief fund, which will help with costs for rebuilding efforts, restoring power and other immediate needs arising from the storm.
“Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship play an indispensible role in helping our communities recover from a disaster like Sandy, and they deserve equal treatment from the Federal government in disaster relief funding. That is why I am proud to have led this legislative effort. I am also proud and grateful to the Orthodox Union, and its executive director for public policy, Nathan Diament, for its incredible leadership in this effort in the service not only of the Jewish community, but of all faith communities,” said Rep. Smith. He added that, “These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage.”
Also expressing her feelings about the passage of the bill was Congresswoman Grace Meng who represents the 6th Congressional district in New York and is the first woman to represent central Queens in the House of Representatives since Geraldine Ferraro. She declared: “The passage of this legislation is a great victory for the many houses of worship that were damaged or destroyed by Sandy. We’re now one step closer to ending the unfair and discriminatory treatment that churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have been forced to endure since the storm hammered our region. Hopefully, it won’t be long until these institutions — and the millions of Americans who benefit from the social services they provide—have access to the same FEMA funds that other nonprofit entities have been permitted to receive. I was proud to sponsor this critical legislation.”
Rep. Peter King, (R-NY) said churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious institutions deserve the same treatment as other non-profit organizations.
“They shouldn’t be penalized just because of their religious involvement,” said King.
Not all lawmakers, however, viewed the passage of the bill in a positive light, as they held reservations about the bill’s impact on a possible erosion of the barriers of religion and government. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, who represents New York’s 10th congressional district 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 argued that the bill was rushed to a vote a few days after it was filed, without any hearings or consideration by the Judiciary Committee.
Also opposing the bill were the Americans United for Separation of Church and State organization who said that taxpayers should not shoulder the burden involved in paying for reconstruction of houses of worship. The group said public funding of religion violates the Constitution and that a long line of federal court decisions bars government support for buildings used primarily for worship.
“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,” said Reverend Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United, said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union 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 ACLU. Sher said FEMA has a longstanding policy of limiting grants only to nonprofits with facilities used to provide emergency, essential, and government-like activities. Houses of worship, just like the many other nonprofit facilities, are ineligible to receive these grants, she added.
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.
“Hurricane Sandy taught us that Mother Nature does not discern between houses of worship and other residential and commercial structures,” said Farley Weiss, the president of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization representing over 150 Orthodox synagogues in America. “As the heavy rains fell and water flooded the streets leaving a path of devastation in its wake, houses of worship unfortunately sustained the same considerable damage as everyone else in the affected areas. Passage of this legislation is a critical step towards ensuring parity in the distribution of federal relief funds. Houses of worship, which are an essential part of any community, deserve the same opportunity to rebuild as everyone else,” he added.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, the Washington Director and the Vice-President for Federal Government Affairs of the Agudath Israel of America, an organization also representing Orthodox synagogues in America, said that the 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.
“We greatly appreciate the leadership of Reps. Smith and Meng, as well as Majority Leader Eric Cantor on this issue, said Nathan Diament, the executive director for public policy of Orthodox Union, and one of those spearheading the bill’s passage. “The bill delivers equitable and just assistance to our synagogues and other houses of worship which serve their communities always, and especially in the wake of a crisis. We look forward to seeing this legislation pass the Senate,” he added.