House Passes Bill Allowing FEMA Disaster Aid for Churches

A bill that would allow houses of worship to receive federal disaster aid easily passed Wednesday in the House of Representatives.

The "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act" was passed under suspension of the rules, which meant it needed a two-thirds vote for passage. It easily met that threshold with 354 members voting in favor and only 72 voting against the bill. The bill will have to be passed in the Senate and signed by the president for it to become law.

"The House has decisively acted to correct this blatant unfairness. We now need the Senate to act," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), one of the bill's sponsors, on the House floor.

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The issue came to light after Hurricane Sandy. Houses of worship were unable to receive the same federal assistance from FEMA as other non-profits who also were aiding victims after disaster. The Christian Post was one of the media outlets bringing attention to the issue with a column by Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School.

"Continuing this FEMA policy is ugly – because it is (1) a senseless discrimination, (2) a step down an insane and sinister slope, (3) a severe penalty for great and generous deeds, present and future, and (4) a mindless undermining of the priceless soul-care needed by a huge variety of Superstorm Sandy victims," de Vries wrote.

Smith represents a district, covering Ocean and Monmouth counties in New Jersey, that was hard hit by Sandy.

"Today's debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind," Smith added. "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."

The bill's other sponsor is a Democrat – Rep. Grace Meng, whose Queens, N.Y., district was also ravaged by Sandy.

"The passage of this legislation is a great victory for the many houses of worship that were damaged or destroyed by Sandy," Meng said. "We're now one step closer to ending the unfair and discriminatory treatment that churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have been forced to endure since the storm hammered our region."

American's United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union urged a no vote on the bill, claiming that it was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says Congress may not pass a law "respecting an establishment of religion."

"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," Vanessa Wolbrink wrote for American's United.

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