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Christopher S.
Republican NJ 4

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  • Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013

    by Representative Christopher H. Smith

    Posted on 2013-02-13

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    SMITH of New Jersey. I thank my good friend, the chair, for yielding. I thank him for his support and for Mr. Rahall. And I want to thank Gracie Meng for her cosponsorship and leadership on this important bill, and all the cosponsors, and to Eric Cantor and the leadership for scheduling it for a vote today. This is extremely important and very timely.

    Madam Speaker, Superstorm Sandy inflicted unprecedented damage on communities in the Northeast, including my district in New Jersey. Congress and the President have responded by providing $60 billion in emergency and recovery aid.

    Today's debate and vote, however, isn't at all about whether or how much funding Congress appropriates to mitigate the impact of Sandy. We've had that vote.

    Rather, it's about those who are being unfairly left out and left behind. It's about those who help feed, comfort, clothe, and shelter tens of thousands of victims now being told they are ineligible for a FEMA grant.

    It's unconscionable that foundational pillars of our communities damaged by Sandy--synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship--have been categorically denied access to these otherwise generally available relief funds.

    Current FEMA policy is patently unfair, unjustified, and discriminatory and may even suggest hostility to religion. FEMA has a policy in place to aid nonprofit facilities damaged in the storm, but the agency has excluded houses of worship from their support. That is wrong, and it's time Congress ensures fundamental fairness for these essential private nonprofits.

    The bipartisan Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act will ensure that houses of worship are eligible for Federal funds administered by FEMA.

    Madam Speaker, it's worth noting here that FEMA's discriminatory policy of exclusion is not prescribed by any law. Nothing in the Stafford Act or any other law, including the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, precludes funds to repair and to replace and to restore houses of worship.

    Indeed, the congressional precedent favors enacting H.R. 592, as there are several pertinent examples of public funding being allocated to houses of worship. For example, FEMA grants were explicitly authorized by Congress back in 1995 and provided to the churches damaged by the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, as my friend from West Virginia pointed out.

    {time} 1230 The Homeland Security Department and UASI provides funding to houses of worship for security upgrades. The Interior Department provides funding to grants for historically significant properties, including active churches and active synagogues. And the SBA provides low interest loans--no hint at all by anyone that there's an Establishment Clause issue.

    It's important to note that a controlling Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memorandum explains in detail the legal principles that make H.R. 592 constitutional. In a 2002 written opinion, the Office of Legal Counsel concluded it was constitutional for Congress to provide disaster relief and reconstruction funds to a religious Jewish school, along with all sorts of other organizations, following a devastating earthquake. The same principles apply to protect religious organizations following a devastating hurricane.

    As the Office of Legal Counsel memo concluded: Provisions of disaster assistance to religious organizations cannot be materially distinguished from aid programs that are constitutional under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, establishing that religious institutions are fully entitled to receive generally available government benefits and services, such as fire and police protection.

    The Supreme Court handed down its first modern Establishment Clause decision in the Everson v. Board of Education decision, which involved a program in my own home State of New Jersey. In that case, the Court held that religious institutions are entitled to receive ``general government services'' made available on the basis of neutral criteria. The Court held that the Establishment Clause does not bar, in that case, students attending religious schools from receiving generally available school busing services provided by the government.

    As Nathan Diament, Executive Director of Public Policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of America, notes in his excellent legal analysis, which I will include in the Record: Disaster relief is analogous to aid that qualifies as general government services approved by the Court in Everson.

    Madam Speaker, the bill before us today simply makes clear and clarifies that Federal disaster relief includes religious entities, along with every other sort of entity.

    As the Court later stated in Widmar v. Vincent: The provision of benefits to so broad a spectrum of groups is an important index of secular, that is, constitutional effect.

    As it stated more recently in Texas Monthly v. Bullock: Insofar as that subsidy is conferred upon a wide array of nonsectarian groups as well as religious group organizations in pursuit of some legitimate secular end, the fact that religious groups benefit incidentally does not deprive the subsidy of the secular purpose and primary effect mandated by the Establishment Clause.

    Significantly, Madam Speaker, when three churches in Detroit received taxpayer-funded grants to repair and spruce up their buildings prior to the 2006 Super Bowl, American Atheists sued the City of Detroit and lost.

    [[Page H467]] In a sweeping decision offered by Judge Sutton, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, unanimously held that the direct assistance to the churches did not violate the Establishment Clause. Judge Sutton said, and I quote, in pertinent part: Detroit sought to fix up its downtown, not to establish a religion. And as will generally be the case when a governmental program allocates generally available benefits on a neutral basis and without a hidden agenda, this program does not have the impermissible effect of advancing religion in general or any one faith in particular. By endorsing all qualifying applicants, the program has endorsed none of them, the Court went on to say, and accordingly it has not run afoul of the Federal and State religious clauses . . . In the Establishment Clause context, that means evenhanded neutral laws generally, though not invariably, will be upheld. So long as the government benefit is neutral and generally applicable on its face, it presumptively will satisfy the Establishment Clause.

    H.R. 592 exhibits no government preference for or against religion, or any particular religion, since it merely permits houses of worship to receive the same type of generally available assistance.

    The SPEAKER pro tempore. The time of the gentleman has expired.

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