Congress

Senate Republicans want houses of worship to help aid Harvey, Irma victims

Palm City resident Sandy Burton drops off donated items during a Mass held for about 30 people on Sunday at San Pablo Catholic Church on Marathon Key, Fla. The church is also serving as a donation drop-off site for food, water and other basic necessities and has no electricity, but is structurally sound.
Palm City resident Sandy Burton drops off donated items during a Mass held for about 30 people on Sunday at San Pablo Catholic Church on Marathon Key, Fla. The church is also serving as a donation drop-off site for food, water and other basic necessities and has no electricity, but is structurally sound. AP

Senate Republicans are moving quickly to assure houses of worship can routinely receive federal disaster aid as hurricane-battered Texas and Florida struggle to recover.

Four Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, Tuesday proposed legislation to permit the religious institutions to get federal relief. The senators’ actions follow a supportive tweet from President Donald Trump.

The lawmakers will push the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which would make houses of worship eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance program grants that religious institutions are currently unable to receive under agency directives.

"Religious non-profit organizations, including churches, synagogues, other houses of worship, and community centers should not be excluded from federal disaster assistance just because they are faith-based," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

"Houses of worship provide vital support during natural disasters including food, comfort, shelter and much more," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "It is imperative that they have the resources they need to recover and rebuild."

Advocates for the separation of church and state consider the bill an assault on the U.S. Constitution. They strongly oppose efforts for houses of worship to receive federal disaster aid beyond what’s already allowed under FEMA.

"The government does not build churches, synagogues, and mosques," said Maggie Garrett, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State legislative director. "That’s at the core of the First Amendment, and we stand by that in good times and in bad. Our hearts are with those suffering in the wake of the hurricanes and we want to support them. But we also want to protect the Constitution and the religious freedom values that protect all of us."

Currently, houses of worship aren’t eligible for FEMA public assistance grants, which provide funding for repair, reconstruction, or replacement of nonprofit facilities, the senators said.

Houses of worship can get financial disaster assistance if their facilities are primarily used for "educational, utility, emergency, medical…custodial or essential services of a governmental nature," according to FEMA guidelines.

Trump jumped into the sensitive issue of the separation of church and state two weeks ago when he tweeted that three small Texas churches that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey should be entitled to FEMA assistance to help rebuild.

"Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)," the president tweeted. 

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 48 Democrats and one Republican, echoed Trump’s sentiment last week, saying that FEMA should make recovery funds available to houses of worship, especially if those institutions are involved in helping victims of disasters.

"They give churches so much red tape to go through to get public benefits," Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., black caucus chairman, said last week of FEMA.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Tuesday that the bill crafted by the four GOP senators "shouldn’t be controversial." He believes the bill will work its way through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. No Democrats are listed as co-sponsors, and party leaders said they have not seen the bill.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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