Bill Seeks to Shield Churches from Disaster Discrimination

Bill Seeks to Shield Churches from Disaster Discrimination

December 20, 2017

Last night, the House Appropriations Committee unveiled an $81 billion emergency supplemental spending bill (HR 4667) to provide relief for recovery efforts in areas struck by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as to aid areas of California beset by wildfires. This bill, which is expected to be attached to the end-of-year spending bill, is in addition to the previously approved $51.75 billion slated for disaster relief, bringing the total dispensed in emergency spending to over double the $60 billion spent in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

H.R. 4667 may prove historic for more than its sheer size. Included in the bill text is language from the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017 (H.R. 2405, S. 1823 "Federal Assistance Bill") introduced by Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in the House and by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the Senate. The Federal Assistance Bill was written to ensure that the federal government, via FEMA, does not discriminate against churches in the provision of grants and loans to non-profit organizations that have been damaged or destroyed by a major disaster.

If passed as part of the emergency spending bill, the Federal Assistance Bill would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Specifically, the bill amends the definition of "private nonprofit facility" in the Stafford Act to explicitly include "houses of worship" (currently the definition includes museums, zoos, performing arts facilities, community arts centers, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops, and facilities that provide health and safety services, but not churches).

According to current FEMA policy, churches and other religious nonprofits must be denied disaster relief. In response to this, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, three Texas churches have filed a lawsuit against FEMA. They, like many others, find it inconceivable that our federal government will give funds to repair the zoo that was damaged in a natural disaster, but leaves the church next door, which suffered through the same devastation, to fend for itself.

Adding a heavy dose of irony to this blatant discrimination is the fact that FEMA regularly uses these churches to assist in their on-the-ground disaster relief efforts. Becket, which is representing the three churches in their lawsuit, has pointed out that FEMA uses these very same churches to "shelter dozens of evacuees, distribute meals, and provide medical care" while simultaneously denying them access to the same federal funds given to their nonreligious neighbors. In their lawsuit, the churches are challenging FEMA's policy as a violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. To quote Diana Verm, a Becket attorney affiliated with the case, "Hurricane Harvey didn't cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn't cherry-pick who it helps."

While that lawsuit is ongoing, the Federal Assistance Bill seeks to correct this travesty in our nation's laws, and ensure that nonprofits are not discriminated against purely because of their religious affiliation.

Slight changes have been made to the Federal Assistance Bill's original text, a necessary compromise to ease its path through Congress. Language from a 2013 iteration of the bill, introduced by Representatives Chris Smith and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), has been adopted to its 2017 counterpart. This language would guarantee that all federal funds are used strictly for rebuilding purposes, not for anything religious in nature. To put it plainly, the government would only be paying for the necessary brick and mortar, it wouldn't be replacing lost Bibles.

Despite this concession, including the Federal Assistance Bill's language in the newest emergency spending package is paramount to protecting our nations churches and houses of worship. Natural disasters do not discriminate, and neither should our federal government.

Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.

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