Smith bill included in Bipartisan Budget ActLegislation on Houses of Worship Now Law
A provision to give houses of worship access to critical federal disaster relief was signed into law Feb. 9, 2018 as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. The provision reflects legislation originally authored by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
A legislative provision authored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) to give houses of worship fair access to disaster relief after a federal declaration was signed into law today as part of the larger budget package passed by Congress this morning.
"Churches, synagogues and other religious centers often serve on the front lines helping thousands of victims with food and water, clothing and shelter in the immediate aftermath of a disaster," said Smith, the author of the original bill —the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act—to provide equity and fairness to churches, mosques and synagogues damaged by federal disasters. "These hubs of humanitarian support often need assistance themselves and should not be blocked from programs that help other non-profits simply because of their religious affiliation. Even as they led the way in helping everyone in the community, these facilities found themselves left out in the cold when it came to federal assistance to make needed structural repairs,” Smith added.
Smith introduced his legislation in 2013 in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which wreaked $70 billion in destruction on the Northeast including serious damage to houses of worship. Religious organizations and centers were denied federal disaster relief that they could have used to rebuild, solely because of their religious status—a policy that has no basis in law. That bill passed the House with overwhelming support in 2013, but was ultimately held up in the Senate. Undaunted, Smith re-introduced the bill in 2015 and again in 2017.
“This important provision will stop the discrimination of people of faith who are often among the first and the last rendering assistance to others in times of disaster,” said Smith.
After the 2017 hurricane season inflicted severe damage along the Gulf Coast, Smith led a letter from Members of Congress to the Administration asking for a change to the policy to allow for religious groups and churches to receive disaster relief. In November, the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Mick Mulvaney, asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to include this policy change in a supplemental disaster relief bill that the Administration was requesting. The supplemental bill was passed by the House in December. Read Smith’s letter here.
Many faith-based entities, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Christian Legal Society, Agudath Israel of America, and the International Conference of Evangelical Christian Endorsers came out in support of Smith’s legislation.
Smith was disappointed that another provision which would have allowed disaster victims to be eligible for both federal loans and federal grants for disaster assistance—a provision passed in the House bill but not the Senate bill—was stripped by the Senate before the bill was signed into law. He said 'duplication of benefits' penalty is unfair and targets those who follow the advice on federal disaster personnel on the ground the wake of a disaster.
Smith vowed to continue to fight for legislation he has authored to address this unfairness, Equity for Disaster Victims Act of 2017, which will allow for recipients of the Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans to repay the principal and interest on those loans with federal grants. Provisions in the bill would allow people to apply for both a loan and a grant, so long as the assistance is used for the purposes of recovery in a declared disaster. To view excerpts of Smith’s remarks on the House Floor in favor of the supplemental bill, click here.