"It has been five long months since the House overwhelmingly passed my legislation to ensure that houses of worship are no longer discriminated against under Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules," said Rep. Chris Smith, author of H.R. 592, the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013."
"When a bill passes the House by such a strong, bipartisan margin of 354-72, it is hoped that the Senate will work aggressively to send it to the President's desk. The legislation is desperately needed to put fairness back into our disaster relief programs.
"I welcome the bipartisan efforts of Senators Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) in their introduction of a Senate companion bill, S. 1274, this week and I am delighted and encouraged that New Jersey Sen. Jeff Chiesa has signed on as well. I am confident their leadership will help break the log jam and bring equity to the program."
Smith, who has personally met with Senators Tom Carper and Tom Coburn, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, said that they each raised some concerns that Smith believed could be easily addressed in a bill markup session. Having a companion bill will hopefully help show support in the Senate and advance the issue. Smith also met with FEMA head Craig Fugate to discuss the bill and the current unfair treatment of houses of worship compared to other non-profits.
"Regrettably, through its own rules and regulations, FEMA continues to discriminate against houses of worship while other federal entities such as the Small Business Administration and Homeland Security do not," Smith said. "It's time FEMA get up to date and recognize that superstorms are indiscriminate in their damage and faith-based organizations welcome and greatly assist all victims affected by a disaster. For a community to fully recover, the houses of worship that often are the centers of emergency assistance also need to receive recovery assistance."
In February, Smith, along with original co-sponsors Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-06) and Peter King (R-NY-02), introduced the legislation to put houses of worship--many of which were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy but nonetheless continued to serve ravaged coastal communities--on an even playing field with other non-profit organizations seeking disaster assistance.
"The House acted decisively to correct this blatant unfairness. We now need the Senate to act," said Smith. "H.R. 592 and the Senate companion bill are about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind. It's about those who helped feed, comfort, clothe and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant. It is unconscionable that foundational pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy--synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship--have been categorically denied access to these otherwise generally-available relief funds. Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory and may even suggest hostility to religion."
There are precedents for federal aid to disaster-damaged houses of worship. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA's refusal to provide assistance to the damaged churches. In 2002, after an earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department intervened to order FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.