WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) – The House has overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow houses of worship damaged by Superstorm Sandy to receive federal disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The measure, which passed by a 354-72 vote Wednesday, adds houses of worship to the government’s list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for aid. Critics said the measure violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Sandy roared up the East Coast and pounded several states in late October, especially New York and New Jersey. The storm is blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage.

“There’s a very vivid photograph of waterlogged Torah scrolls being spread out across two benches because they were not removed,” Nathan Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union told WCBS 880.

Bill supporters say many houses of worship damaged in the storm continued to serve their stricken communities with help such as shelter and food.

New Jersey U.S. Rep. Chris Smith co-wrote the provision and he was asked on WCBS 880’s afternoon roundup why he did.

“Well, currently, FEMA is acting in a very discriminatory way. There’s nothing in the current statutes to say they have to do this and they are denying claims made by synagogues and other houses of worship that have been absolutely devastated by superstorm Sandy. They’ve been denying any kind of reconstruction or repair with FEMA money,” Smith told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Wayne Cabot.

He said that when Oklahoma City got hit by an act of domestic terrorism, Congress explicitly authorized FEMA to provide grants to churches.

“We’re talking about damage. We’re not talking about a brand new construction program and it’s damage, just like the rest of the community, like private, non-profits, ought to be given the assistance to rebuild,” Smith said.

He said that why the vote so overwhelming, 354 to 72, for the bill.

Smith defended his amendment saying that it doesn’t violate the First Amendment because all faiths are eligible for aid.

“Under current Supreme Court understandings, if a house of worship happens to meet all of the criteria that have nothing to do with religion, then that is not a Constitutional problem,” Diament told WCBS 880.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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