By a vote of 354-72, the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to clarify that houses of worship are “eligible for certain disaster relief and emergency assistance on terms equal to other eligible private nonprofit facilities, and for other purposes.”
The bill was passed in response to FEMA’s decision to deny aid approved by Congress in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to damaged houses of worship, claiming such aid would violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution.
According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which provided Congress with a legal analysis of the proper role of the Establishment Clause in disaster funding, more than 200 churches and synagogues, destroyed or damaged by the storm, were being discriminated against by FEMA; other nonprofits, such as zoos and museums, were granted aid.
“The Establishment Clause does not prevent synagogues, mosques, churches, and other disaster relief funds from equal access to disaster relief funds that are available to other affected organizations,” said Daniel Blomberg, Legal Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
There’s no constitutional reason why houses of worship, which often are the first to provide timely disaster relief to hard-hit communities, should be categorically banned from receiving relief funds to repair buildings. In fact, continuing the practice of allowing zoos and museums to obtain the funds while shutting out churches expresses precisely the kind of hostility toward religion that the Establishment Clause rejects.
This is not the first time an act of Congress has been required to get federal disaster funds to religious organizations. In 1995, following the Oklahoma City bombing, both FEMA and HUD refused to consider applications for disaster aid from damaged houses of worship. Congress finally approved of the funding, but the statute was apparently limited to that particular incident.
Similarly, in 2002, the Department of Justice interceded when FEMA denied the Seattle Hebrew Academy’s application for aid following an earthquake.