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Grace M.
Democrat NY 6

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  • Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013

    by Representative Grace Meng

    Posted on 2013-02-13

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    MENG. Madam Speaker, I rise today to strongly urge my colleagues to support H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013. I want to also thank my colleague, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, for his wonderful leadership on this issue.

    On October 29 of last year, Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City and its surrounding areas and left an unprecedented amount of damage in its wake. Homes burned to the ground, our communities were devastated, properties flooded, and over 120 lives were lost. Rightfully so, one of the 113th Congress' first actions was ensuring that adequate funding was made available to begin repairing the damage, and I was happy to be part of that effort.

    The $60 billion in aid that Congress made available was a great start to rebuilding our communities and making them whole, but it was only a start. If we as Members of Congress want our affected communities to recover in the aftermath of any natural disaster, we must ensure that FEMA public assistance grants are available to help rebuild all institutions that are vital to a community's way of life.

    H.R. 592 is a bipartisan bill. It would allow houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques, to receive the fair treatment they deserve. The bill places these vital community institutions on the same playing field as other private nonprofits that are already eligible for FEMA disaster relief. This bill provides no new funds. It sets forth no difference, no favoritism, no promotion of religion; it simply provides for the community and its well-being.

    Facilities that already are able to apply for funding include zoos, museums, community centers, and homeless shelters, and it is important that houses of worship not be discriminated against when they need our help. These houses are vital community centers that serve so many of our constituents. The centers' existence, safety, and ability to serve should not be infringed upon, especially because the funds are available under our broadly available program without regard to the religious nature of these facilities. Indeed, to deny FEMA relief to these important institutions would be to discriminate against them because they are religious institutions, in violation of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

    Not every facility, home, or place that engages in religious activity will be made available for FEMA assistance because this bill uses a predefined, accepted definition for what these facilities are under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. This is how the IRS currently recognizes and provides tax benefits to houses of worship, and this definition will help prevent erroneous claims.

    The concerns about promotion of religion are unfounded. Alan Derschowitz, a widely respected expert on these issues, supports this bill on its constitutional grounds. He wrote that: Under precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, religious institutions may receive government aid if it is in the context of a broadly available program with criteria that are neutral toward religion and pose no risks of religious favoritism. This is certainly the case in the context of FEMA disbursing aid to repair buildings in the wake of a natural disaster.

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

    Mr. RAHALL. I yield the gentlelady an additional minute.

    Ms. MENG. Many of the groups opposing this bill also oppose Nonprofit Security Grant funding, historic preservation grants, and parochial school funding after Katrina. They oppose Federal assistance that helped rebuild the Trinity Parish Episcopal Church in Seattle after an earthquake; aid made available after the tragic Oklahoma City bombing in which money was made available to the First United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church, St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, and St. Joseph's Catholic Church. This is not precedential; this is taking care of our constituents and their needs, our most important task in Congress.

    Congress erred by not including an important part of our communities in these rebuilding efforts, and I hope we can correct that today.

    Diocese of Rockville Centre, Rockville Centre, NY, February 11, 2013.

    Hon. Chris Smith, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Dear Representative Smith: A few weeks ago I wrote to your office to call your attention to the sad situation of houses of worship that were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. At that time I could cite Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues who had been told that FEMA would not offer them grants to re-build their place of worship but only loans.

    Today I learned that you plan to offer in Congress a bill that would offer houses of worship the same access to disaster relief as other community centers.

    I write to thank you for doing this as well as to add my voice of support for just such a correction of a previous position that surely does not reflect either our traditions or our current realities. Houses of worship have been one of the first centers of response across Long Island. The Sunday after Sandy I visited the four parishes most damaged by the storm where I witnessed in parish halls without heat or electricity two signs of hope: faithful people worshipping and the same faithful people reaching out to one another to share food, clothing and other necessities even when their own homes had been destroyed.

    To discriminate against houses of worship would be a mark of sectarianism that denies [[Page H469]] the generosity of the people who helped one another and narrows the American spirit to an arbitrary sectarianism. Please know that my parishioners, my priests and all the volunteers in our various outreach centers are one with me in support of your bill.

    William Murphy, Bishop of Rockville Centre.

    ____ American Jewish Committee, Washington, DC, February 12, 2013.

    Re H.R. 592.

    Dear Representative: We write on behalf of AJC (American Jewish Committee) to endorse the necessity and constitutionality of legislation to ensure that FEMA provides disaster-relief assistance to houses of worship and other facilities on an equal footing with analogous not-for-profit organizations.

    We do not support such legislation lightly, since AJC usually opposes direct government aid to pervasively religious institutions, such as houses of worship. AJC has a long record of opposing aid to pervasively religious institutions as an ingredient of the separation of church and state that is an essential component in the protection of our religious liberties. Nevertheless, we believe disaster relief is constitutionally different.

    First, disaster relief, such as the ongoing efforts following Hurricane Sandy, presents special circumstances that do not amount to a transfer of the costs of operating a place of worship from the collection plates to the taxpayer, a core concern of the Framers when they authored the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion. It is instead a form of social insurance in which society shares the burden of recovering from extraordinary disasters. There is a strong societal interest in aiding those who have suffered damage from such a broad-sweeping event, even institutions that for compelling constitutional and policy reasons would not otherwise be eligible for government assistance.

    Second, houses of worship are not uniquely beneficiaries of the aid--a wide variety of not-for-profit institutions are eligible for aid under the existing statutory framework, including zoos and museums. These latter are undeniably important social institutions, but it is clearly the case that houses of worship play at least as important a role in providing essential response services to people in need. Disaster relief is thus available under religiously neutral criteria, which leave no room for discretionary or discriminatory judgments of the sort that generate Establishment Clause concerns.

    For these reasons, we support in principle the goal to which H.R. 592 is directed.

    We do wish to note how we read the proposed language in Section 3(b), lines 15-16, that makes eligible for aid a ``house of worship and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization . . . without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary use of the facility.'' (emphasis supplied) We read this section, as we believe it is intended; as meaning that an otherwise qualified institution is not disqualified from aid merely because it is religious, and that in its implementation, FEMA must apportion aid between secular and religious functions.

    Thank you for your consideration of our views.

    Respectfully, Marc D. Stern, Director of Legal Advocacy.

    Richard T. Foltin, Director of National and Legislative Affairs.

    ____ UJA Federation of New York, New York, NY.

    Memorandum of Support for H.R. 592 equal treatment of houses of worship Houses of worship for all faiths are a crucial part of the New York region's fabric and while they have always been beacons of support, comfort and community resources, since Hurricane Sandy New Yorkers have needed these institutions more than ever. These organizations are an essential part of neighborhoods and enable rites of passage, community gatherings, charitable activities and are sources of comfort and prayer. In the face of lost homes and distressed property, disruption of employment opportunities and dislocated families, houses of worship have helped many find stability and fulfillment in an uncertain time. In the aftermath of Sandy, as with so many other natural disasters, churches, synagogues and other houses of worship have been places offering essential response services to people in need--even while the church, mosque or synagogue itself is damaged.

    Toward that end, UJA-Federation is proud to have funded close to $1 million to 76 synagogues to help these institutions support their communities through respite and relief and enlisted dozens of volunteers to help rebuild damaged buildings. Our efforts have made a significant impact at synagogues including West End Temple in Belle Harbor, Queens, Congregation Khal Yeraim in Sea Gate, Brooklyn and The Jewish Russian Learning Center in Staten Island and these houses of worship have helped the Jewish and broader communities in the neighborhoods they are serving.

    Each of these synagogues serves as vital hubs of community providing physical, spiritual and emotional shelter for community members. That said, during Hurricane Sandy, many of the synagogues suffered severe damage and lack the resources to rebuild. UJA-Federation while helping houses of worship serve individuals in need does not have the resources to support capital needs.

    Many houses of worship function similar to other non- profits by providing day care programming, schooling for children and youth, senior centers and resource centers for immigrants. These services are the lifeblood for communities. Houses of worship have worked closely with elected officials and government on city, state and federal levels to coordinate disaster relief efforts to the benefit of the entire community.

    The Stafford Act provides that private nonprofit entities-- such as schools, hospitals and community centers--damaged in a natural disaster may receive financial grants from FEMA to repair their buildings. The Act does not list houses of worship among its list of examples of nonprofits so eligible; neither does the Act exclude houses of worship in any way. To the extent that FEMA has provided aid to eligible programs run by houses of worship, the aid has not been provided on the same terms as the aid provided to other eligible nonprofits. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate for FEMA's aid program for private nonprofits to assist houses of worship with their rebuilding needs.

    Current Supreme Court jurisprudence makes clear that religious institutions may receive government financial aid in the context of a broad program administered on the basis of religion neutral criteria. This is why houses of worship and other religious nonprofits can, and do, currently receive grants from the Department of Homeland Security to improve their security and the Interior Department for historic preservation.

    Numerous houses of worship have suffered financially from this crisis and federal funding would significantly alleviate the effects of building damage and their contents.

    Accordingly, UJA-Federation supports passage of H.R. 592.

    ____ University of Virginia School of Law, Charlottesville, VA, February 12, 2013.

    Re H.R. 592.

    Hon. Chris Smith, Hon. Grace Meng, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Dear Rep. Smith and Rep. Meng: I write to support your efforts to include places of worship in federal relief efforts in response to Hurricane Sandy. As Professor Dershowitz has already explained, there is no constitutional obstacle to including places of worship in this measure, which is entirely neutral and very broadly applicable.

    The Supreme Court has permitted government funds to flow without discrimination to broad categories of schools, including religious schools (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). And when a university undertook to subsidize publications, the Court has actually required government funds to flow without discrimination to a broad category that included religious publications (Rosenberger v. University of Virginia).

    Charitable contributions to places of worship are tax deductible, without significant controversy, even though the tax benefits to the donor are like a matching grant from the government. These deductions have been uncontroversial because they are included without discrimination in the much broader category of all not-for-profit organizations devoted to charitable, educational, religious, or scientific purposes.

    The neutral category here is equally broad. To include places of worship in disaster relief is neutral; to exclude them would be affirmatively hostile. There is no constitutional obstacle to including them.

    Very truly yours, Douglas Laycock.

    ____ Cambridge, MA.

    Hon. Chris Smith, Hon. Grace Meng, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Dear Representatives Smith and Meng: I write to express my support for your legislation (H.R. 592) which will ensure that churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship damaged in Hurricane Sandy will be eligible to receive federal disaster relief funds to repair their facilities on the same terms as other, similarly situated, private nonprofit organizations.

    While the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment properly restricts government funds flowing to religious institutions, this restriction is not absolute. Under precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, religious institutions may receive government aid if it is in the context of a broadly available program with criteria that are neutral toward religion and pose no risks of religious favoritism. This is certainly the case in the context of FEMA disbursing aid to repair buildings in the wake of a natural disaster.

    Once FEMA has the policy in place to aid various nonprofit organizations with their building repairs, houses of worship should not be excluded from receiving this aid on the same terms. This is all the more appropriate given the neutral role we have witnessed houses of worship play, without regard to the religion of those affected, in the wake of Sandy and countless previous disasters. Federal disaster relief aid is a form of social insurance and a means of helping battered communities get back on their feet. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are an essential part of the recovery process.

    [[Page H470]] I hope Congress will move quickly to enact your legislation.

    Sincerely, Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School.

    ____ Agudath Israel of America, Washington, DC, February 12, 2013.

    Re FEMA Aid and Religious Institutions.

    Hon. Christopher H. Smith, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Dear Representative Smith: On behalf of Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, I write to congratulate you on sponsoring H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which is intended to make clear that houses of worship and other religious institutions are eligible to receive FEMA disaster relief on an equal footing with other eligible nonprofits. A vote on the measure is scheduled for this week.

    Over the years--most recently, during Hurricane Sandy-- Agudath Israel has been engaged in helping to ensure that religious institutions obtain a full measure of FEMA aid for the repair and restoration of their disaster-damaged facilities. Unfortunately, due to unnecessary and unfair limitations placed on how and when disaster assistance may be provided specifically to religious entities--including houses of worship and religious schools--this has been an ongoing challenge. Without the much needed aid, they often face staggering costs that make rebuilding prohibitive.

    There is no reason to treat religious entities in this manner. Supreme Court decisions, as well as executive action, in recent years that have allowed federal aid to go to religious institutions when the assistance is made broadly available and is distributed on a religion-neutral basis--as the FEMA program does.

    Religious institutions are an integral part of American communities and play an important role in assisting devastated neighborhoods revitalize and rebuild. After natural disasters, they provide both material and nonmaterial help to those in need. They should be treated like other vital nonprofits and receive federal assistance without prejudice or discrimination.

    Sincerely yours, Rabbi Abba Cohen.

    ____ The Council of the City of New York New York, NY, February 12, 2013.

    Hon. Grace Meng, Congress Member, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Hon. Chris Smith, Congress Member, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

    Dear Congress Members Meng and Smith: We are writing in support of H.R. 592, the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013. This important legislation will ensure that houses of worship affected by Hurricane Sandy will be eligible to receive assistance from FEMA to rebuild their damaged properties. At stake are the interests of New Yorkers in the many neighborhoods that were hit hard by Sandy.

    Churches, synagogues and mosques serve as a bedrock for our citizens and our communities. They not only provide places for people to worship but operate after-school programs, food pantries, and other critical services. Many of the churches, synagogues and mosques that were damaged by the hurricane are now facing great difficulty reopening their doors.

    Although we understand that some oppose this change due to the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state, in this case we don't agree. Recovery from a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy isn't a matter of state sponsoring religion. It's a matter of helping those in need after one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever seen.

    Under such extraordinary and painful circumstances, houses of worship should be eligible to receive aid on the same basis as all other non-profits damaged by the hurricane. We applaud you for your leadership on this matter and are happy to lend our support to your bill.

    Sincerely, Christine C. Quinn, Speaker.

    Peter F. Vallone, Jr., Chair, Public Safety Committee.

    Fernando Cabrera, Council Member.

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