On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed a bill to allow houses of worship to receive federal disaster aid from FEMA. The House took up the bill in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where several churches were damaged, and voted 354-72 for the bill. If passed, the bill would include houses of worship in the federal government’s list of private nonprofit organizations that are eligible for FEMA grants to rebuild after national disasters.
The bill was co-authored by Representative Chris Smith, R-NJ, and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y. Rep. Smith said, “These houses of worship are conduits of healing and rebuilding in the community, while lacking the resources to address their own structural damage.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., added that churches, synagogues, mosq ues, temples, and other religious institutions deserve the same treatment as other non-profit organizations. “They shouldn’t be penalized just because of their religious involvement.”
The exclusion of churches from FEMA does not make sense. Under current rules, disaster relief is available for several nonprofit organizations, including colleges, universities, parochial schools, hospitals, museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops and facilities that provide health and safety services. But in order to qualify, an entity generally had to spend over fifty percent of its activities in one of the listed areas. So to qualify as a community center, it has to spend a majority of its time being a community center.
The problem with the current rules is that while churches will regularly spend over fifty percent of their time doing covered charitable activities, they rarely will spend over fifty percent of their time in any one area. For example, churches regularly educate, visit the sick in hospitals, transport the sick to hospitals, open its facilities to the public for use, host various community programs, provide rehabilitation services such as AA and divorce recovery, house a library and operate clothing and food banks. But a church will rarely do just one of these activities over fifty percent of its time. As it stands now, churches are penalized for being over-charitable in their activities!
As Rep. Smith noted, houses of worship serve vital roles in their communities. And after national disasters, communities need houses of worship to be rebuilt just as much as the other charitable organizations.
Opponents of this bill argued that churches are already covered under FEMA because they can seek loans just like other businesses. The problem with this argument is that churches are more akin to charities than businesses. Churches just can’t raise their price to cover expenses so providing loans is cold comfort for struggling churches.
Other opponents say that houses of worship should not be covered by FEMA grants because of the separation of church and state. But nowhere in the constitution does it permit the government to be hostile to religion and exclude religious organizations from neutral government programs. In fact, in American Atheists, Inc. v. Detroit Downtown Development Authority, , the Sixth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a grant program that gave money to a church to fix its facilities in light of the upcoming Super Bowl. It does not violate the constitution to allow churches to participate in a neutral government program, on the same terms and conditions as others.
The bottom line is that churches play vital roles in their communities and therefore should be rebuilt after national disasters. Churches are not like businesses and thus are less able to rebuild after national disasters. Churches routinely educate, provide food and clothes for the poor, transport the sick to hospitals, visit the sick in hospitals, allow community groups to use their facilities, operate as community centers, allow performing artists to perform, house libraries, etc. This bill is a wonderful acknowledgment that churches remain vital partners in the community. It also recognizes that the Constitution does not require a radical hostility to religion by the government.