Yesterday, a bipartisan House majority passed H.R. 592, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), which requires FEMA to provide disaster assistance to houses of worship using the same criteria it has for other applicants. A letter to Rep. Smith from the Becket Fund assures him that his bill is on solid constitutional ground. Not that anyone is asking me, but I agree. While practices have not been consistent, there are plenty of examples of government programs and funding being made available to all eligible recipients, defined without regard to religion.
Let’s hope and pray that the Senate quickly follows suit.
As I understand it, the issue is whether houses of worship are eligible for grants that go to facilities that provide “essential services of a governmental nature to the general public,” not reconstruction loans, for which they are already eligible. What we’re talking about, in other words, is whether soup kitchens, meeting places, classrooms, homeless shelters, and other such facilities offered by houses of worship are eligible.
Since both the ACLU and Americans United opposed the legislation, be ready for lawsuits when it is implemented. But as the Becket Fund points out, there would likely also be lawsuits if FEMA persists in discriminating against houses of worship in its provision of disaster relief.