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Bill that would allow churches to receive FEMA aid advances in Congress

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., addresses the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Nov. 30, 2017. RNS photo by Chris Mathews

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based community centers damaged in a natural disaster could be eligible for federal disaster relief funds under a measure approved by a congressional committee.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act, also known as H.R. 4460, was approved on Thursday (Nov. 30) by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and will next move to the House floor for deliberation.

The bill received strong support from both sides of the aisle despite objections that using taxpayer funds to rebuild houses of worship would violate the separation of church and state. Proponents of the measure argue that religious groups, which are often at the forefront of disaster relief efforts, are being unfairly disadvantaged.

First Amendment issues, however, were not brought up at the committee hearing. Instead, the discussion focused on other aspects of the bill, such as requirements for competitive bidding after a $300 million contract was given to a tiny Montana firm to repair Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure damaged in September by Hurricane Maria.

The bill is being considered in the wake of a particularly destructive hurricane season that saw storms ravage Puerto Rico, Florida and the Texas coastline, and wildfires in October that swept across Northern California, where damage costs soar above $1 billion. 

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Chris Mathews

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  • I don’t know why they just pray away the earthquake, hurricane, and fire. They don’t need assistance from Big government when they have Big Religion on their side.

  • The Evangelical churches delivered the vote for Trump, and he’s rewarding them financially. Both sides upheld their end of the grand bargain. A deal is a deal.

  • “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”, that’s what this law would do.

    Courts have said even recently that having religious symbols like ten commandments and christian crosses on govt property give the impression we are a christian theocracy, and they do. Government by law has to stay neutral on religion, cannot promote or use govt funds to further any religion or prefer one religion over others. In the past centuries govt has taught christianity in public schools, fined or tortured ppl for not attending church or paying money to churches, and even executed citizens for not believing in Jesus or god the right way.

    But the pivotal and most glaring example of a theocracy is using government tax money to further religion, giving tax money collected from non christians and non believers directly to churches and other religions. Most state constitutions prohibit this in their constitutions. Even if congress passes this the courts will have their say and in the past they have always struck it down.

  • Should they be entitled to have the police and fire departments come in an emergency? Do you feel this way about secular tax-exempt entities as well?

  • I would normally agree with you and your sentiments expressed. But there is a public nuisance/hazard issue with an abandoned, vacant or heavily damaged building in what is usually a prominent public area.

    Especially since floods are typically not insured or underinsured natural disasters. FEMA only covers damages which are not covered by property/casualty insurance.

  • They haven’t always struck it down. In fact, just this past year, in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to deny a church a state grant allowing it to buy recycled tires for playground surfacing. The church ran a daycare that included religious instruction. The Court put in a footnote that they were not addressing other questions about government funding to religious organizations. Justice Gorsuch put in a concurrence stating that the Court was setting up a distinction between religious “status” and religious “use.”

  • because you can’t sing hymns or proselytise from tire parts. but you can if non christian tax dollars build them a whole new building to worship in and spread their word. that decision made Mo violate it’s own constitution.

  • people can have the law and the purpose of the law explained to them and then want to relitigate the bill of rights like we could re-write it. it’s against the law BUT they really need the money?

  • Think this is opening a pandora’s box. Who is gonna decide what is a legitimate “religious” building and what is not? Does the Church of Satan count? Can I start a religion among my friends, build a commune where we live and worship together somewhere along the banks of the Mississippi (or in the deep forests of the Northwest) and then count on the government to rebuild by place of worship if fire or flood destroys it? Please, don’t tempt me.

    I do not want government financially supporting religious institutions, building places of worship or places for those of a particular religion to learn about that particular religion, schools for children to be taught a particular religion, even child care centers run by religious institutions. I don’t want the government (my tax dollars) rebuilding a natural disaster ruined old folks home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

    This is a terribly mingling of government and religion that isn’t going to work because you cannot “help” a religious institution without defining what is a religious institution.

  • .
    The installation of a safer playground surface at an institution that serves both sectarian and secular tykes was deemed to be in the interest of the state.

    The repair of a church building cannot make that same claim.
    .

  • Isn’t the daycare going to be housed in a storm-damaged church building? If the children deserve a safe playground, all the more so should they deserve mold-free walls that will not collapse in on them during circle time?

  • .
    I do not know — the playground is certainly not. Nothing that I’ve read about the court decision has mentioned a damaged church building.

    Whether kids deserve to worship in a mold-free church is up to the church to ensure — not all attendees of the daycare attend the church.
    .

  • Trinity Lutheran didn’t mention storm damage, that’s what the legislation in the current article is about. If it’s a church daycare like TL, the same secular and sectarian kids are going to be both playing and worshipping/receiving religious education in the church building. All attendees of a daycare housed in a church use the building in some way.

  • .
    If a church’s daycare facilities are not “up to code”, it’s up to the church to get them there or forfeit its license. It’s not up to the state.
    .

  • This is why there needs to be a level playing field. Houses of worship should pay property taxes (to pay for fire, police, etc.)and then if they want, set up a charity with open books…just like a secular charity. But no, H.O.W.s want to have it all. Let them get their $$$ from those that support them. That means none of my secular government’s $$$$!

  • They should have fire and police protection because all persons and buildings receive those. But not everyone gets FEMA money and tax dollars should not go to churches. That’s what insurance is for.

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