U.S. Reps Chris Smith (R-NJ), Grace Meng (D-NY) and Peter King (R-NY) announced today that they are urging key U.S. Senators to allow a vote on legislation that would allow the use of federal disaster funds to rebuild houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The three lawmakers, who worked to pass the bill in the House last month, made the case in a letter they sent to Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and Tom Coburn (R-TN), the panel's Ranking Member. The legislation is presently pending before the committee, which is the panel that has jurisdiction over the issue.
The measure, entitled the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 592) would add houses of worship to the government's list of private nonprofit organizations that qualify for FEMA assistance. Presently, these institutions are excluded by FEMA from receiving such funds.
The legislation overwhelmingly passed the House on February 13 by a vote of 354-72.
Below is the text of the letter and a PDF of the correspondence is attached.
The Honorable Thomas Carper
Chairman, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
513 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
The Honorable Tom Coburn
Ranking Member, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
172 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Coburn:
We write to strongly urge the expeditious consideration of HR 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The bill allows houses of worship to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance grants on the exact same terms as other private non-profit facilities.
Hurricane Sandy inflicted unprecedented damage on New Jersey, New York and across the Northeast. It left communities and families devastated and in need of assistance to recover and rebuild. One of the major shortcomings of the recovery process has been the exclusion of houses of worship from federal assistance. Houses of worship are crucial public institutions within our communities. They serve as community centers, and during times of natural disaster help feed, comfort, and shelter thousands of victims. However, they are still denied by FEMA the equal treatment that they deserve.
On February 13, 2013, HR 592 passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming support by a vote of 354 to 72. While we respect your decision to put the bill through regular order in the committee, we hope that doing so will not unnecessarily delay its passage. The bill appropriates no new funds. Any funds granted to houses of worship would only be allocated in accordance with standard FEMA grant procedure to other private non-profit facilities in the wake of a natural disaster.
Providing federal assistance to religious groups to rebuild or prevent disasters is not unprecedented. Federal action in the past supports this change in law. Funds were provided to churches damaged in the Oklahoma City terrorist attack. The Department of Homeland Security provides funding to houses of worship for security upgrades. The Department of the Interior provides grants to historically significant churches and synagogues. FEMA gave aid to religious groups in the aftermath of the Seattle earthquake in 2002.
Two highly respected members of the legal community, Alan Dershowitz and Douglas Laycock, support HR 592 on its Constitutional grounds. Alan Dershowitz 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." Douglas Laycock wrote that, "To include places of worship in disaster relief is neutral; to exclude them would be affirmatively hostile. There is no constitutional obstacle to including them." We hope that their words and federal precedent will aid your decision while considering the bill.
The Senate was quick to act in passing the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act relief package, and we urge the continued support of our communities' recoveries. Your consideration and support of HR 592 will ensure that vital community institutions will have a fair chance at aid to rebuild.
Chris Smith Grace Meng Peter King
Member of Congress Member of Congress Member of Congress