Yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it is changing longstanding policy in order to allow the government to use taxpayer money to rebuild houses of worship damaged in disasters. This is a change that should concern us all. Although we all want to help those who have suffered major damage during hurricanes, wild fires and other natural disasters, that does not mean we can – or should – ignore fundamental principles of religious freedom that protect us all.
One of the clearest commands of the Constitution is that the government may not build churches, synagogues, mosques or other houses of worship. This principle protects taxpayers from being compelled to fund a religion with which they may disagree. It also protects houses of worship from becoming entwined with the government. The new FEMA policy ignores these dangers completely.
The prior FEMA policy was not controversial. FEMA offers grants to a limited set of nonprofit organizations to rebuild their structures. Only those organizations that are open to the public and that perform emergency, essential and government-like activities qualified. Houses of worship, like most nonprofits – including all of those used primarily for “political, athletic, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities” – were not eligible.
But, houses of worship, like any other nonprofit, were eligible to apply for federal loans to rebuild. Moreover, the government could reimburse them for providing social services to disaster victims.
A handful of houses of worship, however, want to get special treatment through taxpayer-funded grants. And now the new FEMA rules appear to permit that. These houses of worship may even ask taxpayers to pay for pulpits, Torah arks, prayer books, religious icons and more.
Even after a terrible disaster, the Constitution protects taxpayers from being compelled to rebuild religious facilities.
The policy change, though significant, is not a total surprise. The Becket Fund sued FEMA right after Hurricane Harvey, insisting that houses of worship in Texas had a right to obtain these federal grants to rebuild their buildings and even their steeples. Soon after, President Donald Trump tweeted support for the lawsuit, writing, "Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
Last month, a federal district court ruled that the Texas churches did not have a right to federal funding to rebuild their facilities used for religious activities. The court explained: “The government has a historical and justifiable interest in avoiding an establishment of religion and using public funds to support religion.” (You can read AU’s latest brief in this case here.)
Congress has also been in the mix. In December, the House adopted H.R. 4667, the House Emergency Disaster Aid Package, which would force FEMA to provide the grants to houses of worship. (The Senate is still drafting its version of the bill.)
Americans United is already in court regarding FEMA policy. We will be digging into the details of the policy change, monitor how it’s implemented and see how it will affect the current lawsuit and the pending legislation.
Each of us gets to decide personally how – and if – to support any religion. That’s the promise the Constitution makes, and we hold to it in good times and in bad. We will continue to fight for the freedom of religion and belief for everyone.