House clears path for disaster funding for religious institutions

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The U.S. House of Representatives easily passed legislation that makes clearer the eligibility of religious institutions for disaster relief.

The bill, approved in a 354-72 vote on Wednesday afternoon, stipulates that the act funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a program that is "neutral with regard to religion," according to statements from the offices of the sponsors of the new language, Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).

An array of groups had pressed for the clarification in the wake of superstorm Sandy, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.

FEMA had withheld assistance because of the law’s vagueness.

The Orthodox Union in a statement praised Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, for facilitating the vote.

"We look forward to seeing this legislation pass the Senate," it said.

Agudah in a statement said religious institutions "should receive federal relief in the same manner other nonprofits are afforded such assistance, without prejudice or discrimination."

The sole major Jewish group opposing the legislation is the Anti-Defamation League.

The Reform movement, which has opposed similar bills in the past, has said it sees assistance after Sandy as "distinct from other forms of aid that we have historically opposed."

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