The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly today to put houses of worship—many of which were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy but nonetheless continued to serve ravaged coastal communities—on an even playing field with other non-profit organizations seeking disaster assistance.
H.R. 592, the "Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013," was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-04) with orignial cosponors Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-06) and Peter King (R-NY-02). The bill is also cosponsored by Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), Trent Franks (R-AZ-08), Michael Grimm (R-NY-11), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ-02), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-04) and Bill Pascrell Jr.(D-NJ-09).
The Smith-Meng-King bill, which passed 354-72, far exceeded the required super majority of two-thirds vote for bills passed under a suspension of the rules. The legislation stipulates that the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which funds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief program, is a general government program under which federal assistance following a natural disaster can be rendered using criteria that are neutral with regard to religion. Congress has previously enacted laws providing financial assistance to religious nonprofit institutions, including houses of worship, on terms equal to other eligible nonprofit organizations. The bill now moves to the Senate.
“The House has decisively acted to correct this blatant unfairness. We now need the Senate to act,” said Smith, who spoke on the House floor this afternoon, noting his congressional district in Ocean and Monmouth counties were hit hard by Sandy. “Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind. 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.” Click here to read Smith's remarks on the Congressional Record. Click here or on image above to watch Smith's floor remarks.
“The passage of this legislation is a great victory for the many houses of worship that were damaged or destroyed by Sandy,” said Meng. “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. Hopefully, it won’t be long until these institutions – and the millions of Americans who benefit from the social services they provide – have access to the same FEMA funds that other nonprofit entities have been permitted to receive.”
“This legislation is long overdue,” said King. “Organizations should not be denied federal assistance in times of need just because of their religious affiliations.”
Congressman Engel said, “Religious organizations are a mainstay of our communities and they deserve our help in recovering from the devastation of Sandy. Many of them were the only shelter available to people who lost their homes. As the rest of the northeast recovers, these vital communal institutions must recover also.”
There are precedents for federal aid to disaster-damaged houses of worship. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide assistance to the damaged churches. In 2002, after an earthquake in Seattle, the Justice Department intervened to order FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.
The bill has been endorsed by numerous organization and individuals, including (click on links to view letter):