House approves bill forcing FEMA to allow churches to apply for aid

The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to let churches, mosques, synagogues and temples apply for taxpayer-funded disaster aid.

The bill, from Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), is a reaction to FEMA's policy of denying disaster aid grants to houses of worship, even though it allows grants to religious-affiliated groups.

"It's unconscionable that foundational pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy — synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other house of worship — have been categorically denied access to these otherwise generally available relief funds," Smith said during debate on the bill. "Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory, and may even suggest hostility to religion."

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Smith's bill, H.R. 592, would amend the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to include houses of worship in the list of nonprofit groups that are eligible for federal disaster aid. Under current law, entities such as parochial schools and religious hospitals are eligible for this aid, but not places primarily used for worship.

But other members argued that the legislation would violate the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) argued that the bill is a clear violation of that amendment.

"Direct government funding of churches, synagogues and mosques has always been held to be unconstitutional, and the decisions of the Supreme Court establishing that principle remain good law to this day," he said.

Supporters of the bipartisan bill, H.R. 592, said federal aid to houses of worship is not a violation of the Constitution when that aid is meant to be used broadly for a range of affected entities. In those cases, federal aid need not be withheld from houses of worship that are, like many others, seeking to repair their buildings from storm damage.

"There is no intrinsically religious purpose in providing disaster assistance," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), a supporter of the bill.

Supporters also said Congress has previously voted to allow federal aid to be used by houses of worship. In 1995, they said, Congress approved language that allowed these groups to use federal aid to repair damage caused by the Oklahoma City bombing.

"FEMA's discriminatory policy of exclusion is not prescribed by any law," Smith added. "Nothing in the Stafford Act or any other law, including the Hurricane Sandy disaster relief appropriations act, precludes funds to repair and to replace and to restore houses of worship."

Nadler argued that because some religious-affiliated groups can already receive assistance, going further to allow for the repair of churches and other houses of worship crosses the line to direct support of these religions.

"So what we're really talking about is whether we should be in the business of using taxpayer money to build and rebuild houses of worship, rebuild sanctuaries and altars that are not available for use for the general public," he said.

Despite the back-and-forth debate, the bill passed by a relatively cushy 354-72 suspension vote that needed a two-thirds majority for passage. The bill was opposed by 66 Democrats and just six Republicans — four of those Republicans switched their votes at the last minute.

House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which may feel some pressure to at least consider the bill in light of the federal aid being delivered to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Immediately afterward, the House approved H.R. 267, the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act, in a 422-0 vote. That bill eases federal regulations in a bid to develop hydropower around the country.