A bill expected to be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday seeks to put houses of worship--many of which were damaged by Superstorm Sandy but went on to serve ravaged coastal communities--on a level playing field with other non-profit organizations seeking disaster assistance.
H.R. 592, the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013," is co-authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-04) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-06), and co-sponsored by Peter King (R-NY-02), Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), Trent Franks (R-AZ-08), Michael Grimm (R-NY-11), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ-02), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-04) and Bill Pascrell Jr.(D-NJ-09).
The Smith-Meng-King bill stipulates that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster relief program, 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. Congress has previously enacted laws providing financial assistance to religious nonprofit institutions, including houses of worship, on terms equal to other eligible nonprofit organizations.
"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 were hit hard by Sandy. "These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage. My bill would clarify that FEMA cannot unjustly and unreasonably discriminate against houses of worship in determining grant eligibility. Religious organizations have received federal support in other disasters and for homeland security upgrades, and helping in this disaster should be no different."
"The decision to hold a vote on this important legislation is great news for the many houses of worship that desperately need to repair or rebuild their facilities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy," said Meng. "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. And it will change if this critical legislation becomes the law of the land. I urge all my colleagues in Congress to support it."
"This legislation is long overdue," said King. "Organizations should not be denied federal assistance in times of need just because of their religious affiliations."
Congressman Engel said, "Religious organizations are a mainstay of our communities and they deserve our help in recovering from the devastation of Sandy. Many of them 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."
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.
The bill has been endorsed by numerous organization and individuals, including (click on links to view letter):
Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law Professor
American Jewish Committee
Council of New York City
Family Research Council
The Jewish Federations of North America
Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia Law School Professor
The Most Rev. William Murphy, Bishop of Rockville Centre (Long Island)
N.J. State Assn. of Jewish Federations
National Association of Evangelicals
The Most Rev. David O'Connell, Bishop of Trenton
Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Council of the City of New York
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
United Jewish Appeal (UJA) of N.Y.
U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops