Compiled from wire reports
WASHINGTON –Legal language allowing houses of worship to receive federal disaster assistance was included in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act that passed out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Nov. 30 by a voice vote. No vote in the full House was immediately scheduled.
“We are thankful that critical language allowing disaster relief to go to churches, synagogues and mosques was included in the disaster reform bill,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), author of the original legislation giving churches access to the relief.
“They have been centers of service for communities devastated by natural disasters, like after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, or Hurricane Harvey just this year, providing food, supplies, counseling and other aid despite often suffering damage to their own facilities; they should not be shut out of needed relief and should be treated like other non-governmental organizations,” he said.
The bill that was advanced included the exact language from Smith’s bipartisan bill The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017 (HR 2405), introduced in May by Smith and Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
That bill enabled houses of worship, currently shut out of receiving federal disaster assistance because of their religious status, to have equal access to this critical aid as secular groups have. Under the bill, FEMA would judge the eligibility of churches and religious groups for disaster relief as they would for all private-non-profits, regardless of their religious status.
The chairmen of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs supported the measure in a letter to Congress in September. The support came after a series of storms raked Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A similar bill remains in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Legislation authorizing such aid was first introduced by Smith in 2013, months after Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey and parts of New York State and other areas of the Northeast region. The House passed the bill, but it was never taken up in the Senate. In 2015, Smith reintroduced the act as HR 3066.