Disaster aid backed for houses of faith

Posted: February 14, 2013

WASHINGTON - The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy to receive federal disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The House voted 354-72 for the bill, which now goes to the Senate. Houses of worship would be added to the federal government's list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for FEMA aid to help rebuild under the measure. Critics said it goes against the constitutional separation of church and state.

Backers of the bill say hundreds of houses of worship were damaged in the storm and that many of them continued to serve their stricken communities providing help such as shelter and food.

Sandy roared up the East Coast and pounded several states in late October, especially New York and New Jersey. It was the deadliest hurricane in the northeastern United States in 40 years and the second costliest in the nation's history, a recent National Hurricane Center report said.

The measure, cowritten by Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and Rep. Grace Meng (D., N.Y.), allows houses of worship to seek grants from FEMA'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," said Smith.

Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) said that churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious institutions deserve the same treatment as other nonprofit organizations.

Fellow New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said there were "real constitutional problems" with using taxpayer dollars to rebuild structures such as religious sanctuaries and altars that are not used by the general public. He complained that the bill was rushed to a vote a few days after it was filed, without any hearings or consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

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