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Ms. MENG. Madam Speaker, I rise today to strongly urge my colleagues to support H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013. I want to also thank my colleague, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, for his wonderful leadership on this issue.
On October 29 of last year, Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City and its surrounding areas and left an unprecedented amount of damage in its wake. Homes burned to the ground, our communities were devastated, properties flooded, and over 120 lives were lost. Rightfully so, one of the 113th Congress' first actions was ensuring that adequate funding was made available to begin repairing the damage, and I was happy to be part of that effort.
The $60 billion in aid that Congress made available was a great start to rebuilding our communities and making them whole, but it was only a start. If we as Members of Congress want our affected communities to recover in the aftermath of any natural disaster, we must ensure that FEMA public assistance grants are available to help rebuild all institutions that are vital to a community's way of life.
H.R. 592 is a bipartisan bill. It would allow houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques, to receive the fair treatment they deserve. The bill places these vital community institutions on the same playing field as other private nonprofits that are already eligible for FEMA disaster relief. This bill provides no new funds. It sets forth no difference, no favoritism, no promotion of religion; it simply provides for the community and its well-being.
Facilities that already are able to apply for funding include zoos, museums, community centers, and homeless shelters, and it is important that houses of worship not be discriminated against when they need our help. These houses are vital community centers that serve so many of our constituents. The centers' existence, safety, and ability to serve should not be infringed upon, especially because the funds are available under our broadly available program without regard to the religious nature of these facilities. Indeed, to deny FEMA relief to these important institutions would be to discriminate against them because they are religious institutions, in violation of the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Not every facility, home, or place that engages in religious activity will be made available for FEMA assistance because this bill uses a predefined, accepted definition for what these facilities are under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. This is how the IRS currently recognizes and provides tax benefits to houses of worship, and this definition will help prevent erroneous claims.
The concerns about promotion of religion are unfounded. Alan Derschowitz, a widely respected expert on these issues, supports this bill on its constitutional grounds. He wrote that:
Under precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, religious institutions may receive government aid if it is in the context of a broadly available program with criteria that are neutral toward religion and pose no risks of religious favoritism. This is certainly the case in the context of FEMA disbursing aid to repair buildings in the wake of a natural disaster.
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Ms. MENG. Many of the groups opposing this bill also oppose Nonprofit Security Grant funding, historic preservation grants, and parochial school funding after Katrina. They oppose Federal assistance that helped rebuild the Trinity Parish Episcopal Church in Seattle after an earthquake; aid made available after the tragic Oklahoma City bombing in which money was made available to the First United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, and St. Joseph's Catholic Church. This is not precedential; this is taking care of our constituents and their needs, our most important task in Congress.
Congress erred by not including an important part of our communities in these rebuilding efforts, and I hope we can correct that today.
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