Facility Management

Houses of Worship Damaged by Hurricanes Eligible for FEMA Aid

Photo Credit: Becket Law Firm
Pastor Charles Stoker looks over damage to Hi-Way Tabernacle Assembly of God Church after Hurricane Harvey in Cleveland, Texas, north of Houston.

Disaster-damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship will now be treated fairly - on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers and libraries stricken by natural disasters.

Adelle M. Banks  ·  January 4, 2018

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After lawsuits and a Supreme Court decision, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued a new policy extending disaster relief to churches, synagogues and other congregations.

Addressing a church-state separation issue, the agency’s latest policy guide says FEMA made the change so houses of worship aren’t considered ineligible “on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility.”

It cites the June 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which the high court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Missouri church that claimed religious discrimination after it was refused state funds to improve its playground.

In FEMA’s previous guide, language deemed private nonprofits ineligible for aid if they primarily offered religious activities — including worship and religious instruction. That language has been removed from the policy guide released Tuesday (Jan. 2).

President Trump tweeted in September that Texas churches should be “entitled to reimbursement from FEMA” for aiding Hurricane Harvey victims. Texas officials followed up and asked him to change the FEMA policy so affected houses of worship could get rebuilding assistance.

FEMA was sued by three Texas churches damaged by Harvey. They challenged the previous FEMA policy, saying it “explicitly denies equal access to FEMA disaster relief grants for houses of worship solely because of their religious status.” Later, two Florida synagogues damaged by Hurricane Irma also sued FEMA.

“Better late than never,” said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer with the nonprofit law firm Becket, which represents the Texas churches and the Florida synagogues. “By finally following the Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State expressed concern about the new policy, tweeting, “The new FEMA policy raises very serious constitutional questions by appearing to authorize problematic tax aid to churches.”

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