WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency
is revising its policies to no longer exclude houses of worship from applying
for federal aid to recover from damages caused by natural disasters.
change was outlined in the agency's revised 217-page manual: "Public
Assistance Program and Policy Guide" issued Jan. 2.
is not just for damage caused in future disasters but also affects claims made by
churches last year from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma because it can be applied
retroactively to claims made "on or after Aug. 23, 2017."
introduction to the new FEMA manual credits the change in policy to a Supreme
Court decision last June, which ruled that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should
not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church. The court's 7-2
decision specifically referred to the church-run preschool and said it should
not be excluded from a state grant program to refurbish its playground surface
just because it is a religious entity.
light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on
private nonprofit facility eligibility," the agency's new document says, pointing
out that houses of worship would not be excluded from eligibility for FEMA aid
on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the
Blomberg, an attorney for the Becket Fund, representing Texas churches and Florida
synagogues that have sued FEMA over not getting federal disaster aid, welcomed
the policy change.
late than never," he said in a statement. "By finally following the
Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches, which in
the words of the Supreme Court was 'odious' to the First Amendment. We will
watch carefully to make sure that FEMA's new policy implemented to provide
equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities."
Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, was similarly pleased with the FEMA
destruction due to the flooding and hurricanes is of such a magnitude that the
government must help in the response," he said in a statement.
Knights of Columbus have given $1.4 million to repair or help rebuild churches
that were destroyed or badly damaged in hurricanes last year in Texas, Florida
and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The organization also raised $3.8 million for
disaster relief in these areas.
said church repair has been a key component of Knights' relief efforts,
stressing that "help from both the government and the nonprofit sector in
the restoring of churches and other spaces dedicated to religious activities
will send an important signal that these communities are coming back, that the
spirit of the people is alive and well." It also helps these houses of worship
with the many charitable and social services they provide, he added.
battle over getting federal funds to restore storm-damaged church property has been
in a legal tangle since last year when three Texas churches severely damaged by
Hurricane Harvey were denied federal aid. The churches filed a lawsuit against FEMA
over its policy accusing the agency of religious discrimination. Two Florida
synagogues damaged in Hurricane Irma similarly filed lawsuits.
churches appealed the agency's decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals,
which denied them emergency relief but agreed to hear the case in February. Another
request for an emergency injunction for these churches has been pending at the
three churches are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost
its roof and steeple and had other structural damage, the Harvest Family
Church in Cypress, and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were both flooded.
Donald Trump has said on Twitter that places of worship damaged in hurricanes should
be able to receive federal aid from FEMA.
past fall, the issue of FEMA disaster aid going to faith-based groups has been
making its way through Congress. In late November, a committee approved the
Disaster Recovery Reform Act which would open the doors for church groups to
seek FEMA aid, but the bill was awaiting deliberation from the House floor.
of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty and the Committee on
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs supported the measure in letters sent to
members of the House and Senate.
letters, signed by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the
religious liberty committee, and Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield,
Massachusetts, chairman of the ecumenical committee, said the bill regarding
FEMA aid and houses of worship "is not asking for special treatment, just
equal treatment that conforms to constitutional protections."
should be noted that in the aftermath of a natural disaster, houses of worship
often play an irreplaceable role in the recovery of a community," they
wrote. "Discrimination that treats houses of worship as ineligible for
federal assistance in the wake of a natural disaster, beyond being a legal
violation, hurts the very communities most affected by the indiscriminate force