(RNS) The House Wednesday (Feb. 13) overwhelmingly passed a bill to allow places of worship to receive federal aid to repair their buildings damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

The bill, which garnered strong bipartisan support, is also expected to pass the Senate, and would address what its sponsors consider a discriminatory practice that keeps federal disaster money from religious groups.

Currently the Federal Emergency Management Agency excludes religious organizations but assists privately owned nonprofits. If the bill becomes law, it will make houses of worship eligible for relief on the same terms as other nonprofits.

“Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind,” Christopher Smith, R-N.J., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told his House colleagues.

“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.”

The bill passed 354-72, and will cover  houses of worship affected not only by Hurricane Sandy, which struck Mid-Atlantic states in October, but also by future natural disasters.

However, some see the bill as a violation of the First Amendment — because it would send taxpayer money to houses of worship.

The Secular Coalition for America, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and like-minded groups urged the House not to pass the bill.

“Although it may not seem easy in times of tragedy to tell those seeking aid that they are ineligible for government grants,” wrote Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United, “the bar on the government rebuilding of houses of worship is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all.”

The bill, however, is backed by many national religious organizations, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, said he hopes the bill will pass the Senate as quickly as it did the House.

“We’re committed to seeing this project through for the benefit of the houses of worship in our communities, not only for Hurricane Sandy, but future disasters as well,” Diament said.

4 Comments

  1. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, …”

    Of course. This doesn’t violate the First Amendment in any way, shape or form. Once again, TAX THEM. If they want the benefits provided by government, they can be held accountable through taxation, like everyone else. Or, they can stop their whining, stop their lobbying, and fix the damned buildings themselves.
    Furthermore, CHURCHES don’t do squat. PEOPLE do. It is people that donate to charities (religious included).

    So, USA, which is it? Passing a law respecting an establishment of religion, and slapping your First Amendment in the face, or leaving them alone, in ALL matters, until they decided to pay taxes?

    ‘MURICA!

  2. “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    If both Lutheran Child and Family Services and Open Arms Adoption Center are damaged in a storm, and the government helps Open Arms rebuild after the disaster but refuses to help Lutheran Child and Family Services solely on the basis that it is a religious organization, that is violation of the free exercise clause and unconstitutional discrimination based on religious belief.

    If Claude wants to make tax exemption the (dis)qualifier for federal aid, then by all means, do so! But that would eliminate the aid that would help rebuild the ASPCA animal shelters and charity hospitals and all manner of other private organizations. If you help not-for-profits, then you cannot eliminate religious organizations based solely upon their religious purpose without violating the free exercise clause. You can put other, non-discriminatory and generally applicable qualifiers on the aid, but putting a religious qualifier on the aid is just as unconstitutional and repugnant as making race the basis for obtaining aid.

    Rebuilding the communal infrastructure of a community after a disaster is a legitimate government interest. A bill which says the government will provide assistance in rebuilding to anyone who meets XYZ requirements regardless of religious affiliation is appropriate, since the purpose of the bill is not the establishment of a religion. (In other words, the bill was written without regard to the establishment of religion.) A bill which says that government will provide assistance in rebuilding to anyone who meets XYZ requirements unless they are religious violates the free exercise clause.

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