Congress advances bill allowing disaster funds for houses of worship


(JTA) — A congressional committee has approved a bill that allows federal disaster relief funds to go to houses of worship.

Thursday’s unanimous vote in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sends the measure to the full U.S. House of Representatives for approval.

Previously, relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could not go to churches, synagogues and other houses of worship due to concerns about separation of church and state. Other institutions, like community centers or zoos, could receive the funds. The money reimburses the institutions for aid they provide to victims of natural disasters.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has long pushed for the change. In September, amid a string of hurricanes ravaging the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, President Donald Trump tweeted his support for churches receiving FEMA funds.

“Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” Trump said on Twitter.

According to the text of the bill, “A church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization, shall be eligible for contributions … without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella Orthodox body that has advocated such a change for years, said the bill will mean synagogues receive fair treatment.

“We welcome this policy change, which will end FEMA’s discriminatory treatment of synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship damaged in natural disasters,” said O.U. President Mark Bane in a statement Thursday. “This has been a long time in coming, and we appreciate the support from our legislators as well as the Trump Administration.”