The New York Times on Monday called on the U.S. Senate to kill a bill that would allow hundreds of churches ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 to access federal funds to help rebuild their places of worship.
The bill, Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, seeks to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act in a way that would make churches eligible for disaster relief and emergency assistance. On Feb. 13, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives with overwhelming support, 354-72. The U.S. Senate confirmed on Tuesday that it received the bill on Feb. 14. There is no scheduled date for when the Senate is expected to take it up.
In an editorial on Monday, however, The New York Times said the bill constituted a violation of the First Amendment and criticized the House of Representatives for bowing to political pressure from religious groups and not holding a single hearing before passing the bill.
"Supreme Court rulings interpreting the First Amendment's prohibition against establishment of religion have long barred the direct use of tax money to build, repair or maintain buildings devoted to religious services or other religious activities," noted the Times' editorial.
The editorial pointed out that George W. Bush's administration "did not order FEMA financing for church reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina" and urged the Senate not to support it. "The First Amendment does not allow a Hurricane Sandy exception to pay for the rebuilding of damaged houses of worship. The Senate should let the bill die," it reads.
Dr. Paul de Vries, senior pastor of Immanuel Community Church in lower Manhattan and president of New York Divinity School, wrote op-eds for The Christian Post on why churches should be eligible for federal aid in times of disaster. And while de Vries celebrated the news of the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives, he expressed concern over its passage in the Senate.
"Passing the Senate is the next big step, because the distance between the House and the Senate is often huge, much greater than the few hundred feet between their chambers. Party devotion and values loyalties are remarkably different in our two national legislative bodies. So much that passes in the House is never even brought up in the Senate, because of a number of differences of personality, politics and priority," de Vries writes.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has already publicly endorsed the bill. Her press secretary Angie Hu told The Christian Post in an interview on Tuesday that the bill will have to go through the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee first, and if it makes it pass that point, it will be taken up by the Senate.
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GovTrack, an independent resource that helps the public research and follow legislation in the United States Congress and state legislatures, calculates that the bill only has a 29 percent chance of being enacted.
According to a summary description of the bill, the amendment to the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013 would make " a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, eligible for federal contributions for the repair, restoration, and replacement of facilities damaged or destroyed by a major disaster, without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility."
The Act, if passed, would be applicable to a major disaster or emergency declared on or after October 28, 2012.