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House committee approves bill that would allow churches to receive FEMA aid

(Reuters/Mike Blake)A chalkboard pointing to a FEMA office is shown in the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas.

A congressional committee has advanced a legislation that would allow churches, mosques, synagogues and other faith-based centers to receive federal disaster relief funds.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act, also known as H.R. 4460, is expected to move to the House floor for deliberation after it was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday, Religion News Service (RNS) reported.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed support for the measure despite concerns that using taxpayer funds to build places of worship would violate the separation of church and state.

The introduction of the bill came in the wake of several storms that ravaged Puerto Rico, Florida and the Texas coastline, as well as wildfires in October that swept across Northern California, where the damage has been estimated at more than $1 billion.

RNS noted that First Amendment issues were not brought up at the committee hearing, but the lawmakers discussed other aspects of the bill, such as requirements for competitive bidding after a tiny Montana firm received a $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico's electricity infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Maria in September.

Proponents of the bill have argued that religious groups are being unfairly disadvantaged as they are often at the forefront of disaster relief efforts.

In September, three churches in Texas sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), arguing that its policy banning aid to religious nonprofits violates the First Amendment.

One of the churches that filed the lawsuit, the Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, had housed 70 people displaced by Hurricane Harvey despite suffering flood damage.

The church, located 55 miles northeast of Houston, had also served as a staging center for FEMA, which distributed more than 8,000 emergency meals, according to the churches' attorney, Daniel Blomberg with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison rejected FEMA's request to halt the case, and gave the agency until Dec. 1 to respond to either defend its church-aid policy or come up with a new one.

"If, by December 1, FEMA's position remains unchanged, the court will assume that FEMA concedes, at the very least, plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits of this case and that the injury being suffered by plaintiffs is irreparable," the judge wrote.

The churches' lawsuit noted that FEMA does not offer disaster-relief grants to businesses, but nonprofit organizations that provide "noncritical but essential government services" to the public may be eligible.

Ellison further stated that the agency's policy of evaluating nonprofits based on the services they provide "creates complications" because nonprofits "frequently provide multiple services to their communities."

A day before the Dec. 1 deadline, Ellison reportedly recused himself and the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller on Friday.

Ellison did not disclose his reasoning as the law does not require judges to explain why they are withdrawing from a case.

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