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US lawmakers introduce new bill to make churches eligible for FEMA relief

(Reuters/Adrees Latif)A man assesses damage to the First Baptist Church in Rockport.

Four Republican lawmakers have introduced a new legislation to make churches and other places of worship eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid in the wake of natural disasters.

The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, introduced by Senators Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Cornyn (Texas), Ted Cruz (Texas), and James Lankford (Okla.) on Monday, is aimed at changing the current laws to give houses of worship equal access as other nonprofits in applying for disaster relief.

"FEMA has now for two decades interpreted nonprofits as everyone but churches," Lankford told CBN News.

"Myself and several others have said to FEMA you can't just say to churches that are devastated by Irma and by Harvey, by wildfires, that the library can get benefits, the utility company next door can get benefits, the zoo can get benefits and the museum can, but if you're a church, you're out, you're on your own," he added.

The Oklahoma senator cited a Supreme Court decision in June that ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran church in Missouri, which found that the exclusion of religious institutions from public benefits is "odious to the Constitution."

The introduction of the measure came after three churches sued FEMA earlier this month because of the denial of disaster relief for places of worship under the Stafford Act, due to the separation of church and state.

Diana Verm, counsel at the nonprofit, public-interest law firm The Becket Fund, argued that FEMA should not "cherry-pick whom it helps" because the hurricane did not "cherry-pick its victims."

In early September, President Donald Trump said that churches in Texas should be able to receive money from FEMA for helping hurricane victims.

"Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)," the president said in a tweet.

Trump's tweet had been criticized by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which contended that the government can help individuals and nonprofits rebuild, but not churches, adding that it is a "founding principal of our nation that citizens may not be taxed in support of religion and churches."

Lankford said he believes that the Trump administration can clarify the issue, but the lawmakers decided to clarify the language legislatively as the matter has not been addressed by the government over the "last 20 plus years."

Mick Mulvaney, the White House Director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that Trump's staff is looking into ways on how to deal with the issue legally. Lankford said that he hopes that the Senate can pass the new proposal right away while the White House is considering what it can do about the issue.

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