Congress urged to let houses of worship seek FEMA aid after disasters

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn


WASHINGTON (CNS) — Lawmakers
in Washington were urged to approve a bill introduced in Congress to ensure the
fair and equal treatment for houses of worship damaged in natural disasters “by
enabling them to seek aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

The chairmen of the U.S.
bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty and their Committee
on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs called for support for the measure in identical
letters sent to members of the House and Senate.

The bill is the Federal
Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017, known as H.R. 2405 and S.
1823 in the House and Senate, respectively.

“The legislation is
consistent with Supreme Court jurisprudence, which recognizes the right of
religious institutions to receive public financial aid in the context of a
broad program administered on the basis of religion-neutral criteria,”
said the letter.

It was signed by Archbishop
William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the religious liberty committee, and Bishop
Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, chairman of the ecumenical

A news release was issued
Sept. 28 about the letters, which were dated Sept. 27.

“In the Trinity
Lutheran Church case decided in June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it
is unconstitutional to discriminate against churches — in a generally
available government grant program — just because they are churches,” the
two prelates wrote.

In a 7-2 decision in that
case, the Supreme Court said a Lutheran preschool should not be excluded from a
state grant program to refurbish its playground surface just because it is a
religious entity.

Archbishop Lori and
Bishop Rozanski said the bill regarding FEMA aid and houses of worship “is
not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment that conforms to
constitutional protections.”

“It should be noted
that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, houses of worship often play an
irreplaceable role in the recovery of a community,” they wrote. “Discrimination
that treats houses of worship as ineligible for federal assistance in the wake
of a natural disaster, beyond being a legal violation, hurts the very communities
most affected by the indiscriminate force of nature.”

H.R. 2405 was introduced in
the House in May by Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, and the companion
measure, S. 1823, was introduced in the Senate Sept. 19 by Republican Sens. Roy
Blount of Missouri and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both of Texas.

“The discriminatory
policy of excluding houses of worship from disaster relief is not prescribed in
any law,” Smith said in a statement when the Senate version was
introduced. “The previous administration simply refused to help them. We
have an opportunity to change this through future federal disaster assistance

President Donald Trump
has indicated he supports the legislation.

The measures were first
introduced in the House and Senate back in 2013, months after Superstorm Sandy
devastated New Jersey, parts of New York state and other areas of the Northeast
region. The House passed it in a 354-72 vote, but the Senate refused to take up
the bill.

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