The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would give federal aid for houses of worship harmed by Superstorm Sandy in response to outcry over FEMA regulations banning churches from receiving such aid. Opponents of the ban argued that there was no justification for banning federal aid to churches.
Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told The Christian Post that while his organization neither supports nor opposes the bill, H.R. 592, they did take great issue with the ban by FEMA.
"FEMA's refusal to provide houses of worship equal access to disaster relief funds that are available to similar nonprofits – a position which it has held off and on for each of the last four Administrations – is religious discrimination that should be stopped," said Blomberg.
"FEMA and others are wrong to claim that the Establishment Clause – which combats discrimination – justifies FEMA's decision to discriminate. Setting apart religious institutions for special disfavor is not the type of neutrality that the Establishment Clause requires."
Known as H.R. 592, the proposed bill that make houses of worship eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency passed Wednesday overwhelmingly with 354 yeas to 72 nays.
"To amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to clarify that houses of worship are eligible for certain disaster relief and emergency assistance on terms equal to other eligible private nonprofit facilities, and for other purposes," reads H.R. 592.
"Congress has previously enacted legislation providing financial assistance to religious nonprofit institutions, including houses of worship, on terms equal to other eligible nonprofit institutions … Such legislation is consistent with recent precedents of the Supreme Court of the United States and legal opinions issued by the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice."
H.R. 592 came in response to the news that FEMA had denied federal aid to over 200 houses of worship in New England that had suffered damage from Superstorm Sandy. Supporters of the FEMA measure argued that federal funding of church repairs would be in violation of the separation of church and state.
Vanessa Wolbrink of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued this point in an entry on the organization's blog "Wall of Separation."
"Such funding would entangle religion and government by forcing taxpayers to fund religion with which they may not agree, violating the separation of church and state," wrote Wolbrink.
"Although it may not seem easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid that they are ineligible for government grants, the bar on the government rebuilding of houses of worship is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all."
But Blomberg contended that there was "no constitutional reason why houses of worship, which often are the first to provide timely disaster relief to hard-hit communities, should be categorically banned from receiving relief funds to repair buildings."