US Senate May Take Up Bill to Lift FEMA Ban on Aid to Churches

The United States Senate may be considering a bill that would lift the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ban on providing aid to houses of worship.

Sponsored by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the bill was introduced last Thursday.

"A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and an otherwise eligible private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, shall be eligible for contributions under paragraph (1)(B), without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility," reads the Senate bill in part.

"…contributions under paragraph (1)(B) shall only be used to cover costs of purchasing or replacing, without limitation, the building structure, building enclosure components, building envelope, vertical and horizontal circulation, physical plant support spaces, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems (including heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and fire and life safety systems), and related site improvements."

After being introduced, the Senate bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told The Christian Post that he hopes the Senate bill passes and that FEMA stops discriminating against houses of worship for relief funds.  

"FEMA has long been categorically banning houses of worship from competing for disaster relief funds on the same terms as other similar eligible nonprofits," said Blomberg.

"Discriminating against religious institutions simply because they are religious offends the Constitution, and the bipartisan efforts to correct FEMA's actions…simply seek to right that wrong."

In February, the United States House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to have FEMA lift its ban on providing aid to houses of worship.

HR 592, known also as the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act", was sponsored by Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey and Democratic Representative Grace Meng of New York and passed in a vote of 354 yeas to 72 nays.

The effort to have FEMA lift its ban has garnered criticism from certain civil libertarian groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United, told The Christian Post that she considered the bill "constitutionally problematic."

"FEMA aid is currently limited to non-profits that offer 'government-like' services. The amount of public money available for disaster relief is not unlimited," said Garrett.

"It simply makes sense to direct those funds to the non-profits that provide public services. This is not in any way an example of discrimination against religion."

Garrett also told CP that there were many religious groups that sided with Americans United on this matter, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

"They understand that church-state separation protects religion from government interference and favoritism toward certain faiths," said Garrett.

"The independence and integrity of religious institutions depends on maintaining a wholesome separation from the government."

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