House approves Sandy aid for churches

Superstorm Sandy | Leigh Jones

House approves Sandy aid for churches

President Barack Obama walks past the St. George Malankara Orthodox Church of India on Staten Island, N.Y.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Churches, synagogues, and mosques damaged during Superstorm Sandy will be allowed to file for federal disaster aid under a bill approved this afternoon by the House of Representatives.

Lawmakers voted 354-72 in favor of the bill, which now goes to the Senate for final approval.

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The bill’s backers said worship centers, which continued to serve their communities despite suffering damage during the storm, deserved government help to recover. Critics say the funding goes against the separation of church and state.

The bill had backing from several religious organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Jewish Federations of North America. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill.

The measure, co-authored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., allows worship centers to seek grants from the Federal Emergency Management Association’s disaster relief fund, which helps pay for rebuilding efforts, restoring power, and other immediate needs arising from the storm.

“These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage,” Smith said.

Congress allocated $11 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund in the overall $50.5 billion Sandy aid package approved and signed into law by President Barack Obama last month.

The government’s policy on disaster aid for religious facilities is not consistent. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress overruled FEMA’s refusal to provide aid to damaged churches. And after an earthquake in Seattle in 2002, the Justice Department stepped in and directed FEMA to assist religious organizations damaged by the quake.

Under normal circumstances, FEMA only offers aid to nonprofits with facilities used to provide emergency, essential, and government-like activities.

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