WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted to allow federal assistance for houses of worship following Hurricane Sandy, as the federal relief agency is normally not permitted to help religious institutions.
“The House has decisively acted to correct this blatant unfairness. Today’s debate and vote is about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind,” the bill’s co-author, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said Feb. 13 on the House floor.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates government disaster response in the U.S.
“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,” Smith noted.
“Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified and discriminatory and may even suggest hostility to religion.”
The legislation now moves to the Senate, after it was passed 354-72 in the House. A spokesman for Smith said that the congressman’s office is “delighted” at the margin of the vote.
Smith noted that current policy which the bill he co-authored with Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., seeks to rectify is “unconscionable ... foundational pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy — synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship — have been categorically denied access to these otherwise generally available relief funds.”
Meng called the bill’s passage a “great victory” and noted that the houses of worship affected by Sandy have given critical social services to millions of Americans.
“Religious organizations are a mainstay of our communities, and they deserve our help in recovering from the devastation of Sandy. Many of them were the only shelters available to people who lost their homes. As the rest of the Northeast recovers, these vital communal institutions must recover also,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York.
The bill could help parishes like St. Camillus and St. Virgilius in Rockaway, Queens. They were among the worst-hit parishes in the Brooklyn Diocese, yet even a month after Hurricane Sandy hit the area they were running a food program out of the school gymnasium.
“One hundred people a day are coming to get food and hot meals, because they don’t have any place to cook, and there are no places to buy food on the peninsula — no stores are open,” the parishes’ pastor, Father Richard Ahlemeyer, told EWTN News in December.
The carpet of St. Virgilius had to be ripped up, and the walls stripped at St. Virgilius, because of the extensive water damage.
If the bill becomes law, it will not be the first time that federal aid has been given to disaster-damaged houses of worship. In 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to help churches damaged in the Oklahoma City bombing. And, in 2002, the Justice Department mandated that FEMA assist religious organizations damaged by an earthquake in Seattle.
The bill has been endorsed by numerous religious organizations, both Christian and Jewish.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has endorsed it, as have Bishops David O’Connell of Trenton, N.J., and William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Bishop O’Connell wrote to Smith thanking him for having co-authored the bill: “Volunteers from the Catholic churches as well as all other denominations were on the front line with food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities as soon as the storm passed. They were surely the first responders and just as surely will be there as long as they are needed. To exclude houses of worship from which these volunteers have come is a grave injustice.”