Resuming The FEMA Fiasco: U.S. House Continues Effort To Rebuild Houses Of Worship Damaged By Hurricane Sandy

If the Constitution is violated because of a hurricane, what’s next? Soon we’ll be rebuilding churches every time a basement floods during a thunderstorm.

It has been one year since Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of the East Coast, and lawmakers are still trying to hand taxpayer money to houses of worship to fix damage caused by the storm.

We haven’t heard a whole lot lately about congressional efforts to require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to give public funds to houses of worship that are damaged by hurricanes and other disasters. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with that requirement back in February; a few members of the U.S. Senate introduced a similar bill in July, though it has yet to pass.

But yesterday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure added a provision by voice vote to a FEMA reauthorization bill that would allow taxpayer dollars to be given to houses of worship for repairs.

U.S. Rep Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who introduced the House bill that passed previously, said this week that he sees no constitutional issues whatsoever with using government money to rebuild structures used for sectarian purposes.

“I have a really big bone to pick with FEMA,” Smith told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “The problem has been the houses of worship and the community-based, faith-based organizations that have been excluded… in very large measure from getting any kind of FEMA help.”

Smith went on to note that while houses of worship can get assistance from a variety of government programs, including the Small Business Administration (SBA), which offers low-interest loans, that somehow isn’t enough.

“It is discriminatory to exclude faith-based [organizations],” he said.

When asked by Mitchell if his proposal could cause any constitutional concerns, he said flatly that it doesn’t.

“Not at all,” Smith said. “If it did [violate church-state separation], then every other agency of government like the SBA would be equally violative [sic] of the separation of church and state.”

Americans United begs to differ. In a Feb. 12 letter to House members, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted that houses of worship are not being singled out for unfair treatment as some claim. FEMA, she said, only funds nonprofits that are used for emergency services and other essential, government-like activities. Eligible facilities, such as community centers, must also be open to the general public. 

Additionally, Garrett pointed out (just like Smith) that churches, synagogues, etc. can receive government help through loans – just not direct grants – to rebuild.  

It’s a shame that Smith still thinks natural disasters are an excuse to violate the U.S. Constitution. We know this is a sensitive issue, and Americans United is sympathetic toward anyone who is still struggling to rebuild. But the reality is this is a very slippery slope. If the Constitution is violated because of a hurricane, what’s next? Soon we’ll be rebuilding churches every time a basement floods during a thunderstorm.

It’s also worth noting that FEMA has not been authorized for this kind of repair work under similar circumstances in the past. In August 2005, many religious buildings near the Gulf Coast were damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. In the aftermath of that storm, the George W. Bush administration declined on constitutional grounds to allocate federal money to rebuild religious structures, a somewhat surprising move given that Bush was an outspoken Religious Right ally who championed “faith-based” funding.

But of course there will always be lawmakers like Smith who don’t care about precedent or the Constitution. It’s unclear whether or not Congress will authorize FEMA to rebuild houses of worship this time around, but the fact that these measures have stalled thus far gives us hope that Hurricane Sandy didn’t destroy reason or constitutional principle. Nonetheless, Americans United will continue to keep an eye on things.