February 2018 Church & State - February 2018

FEMA Changes Policy To Give Disaster Aid To Houses Of Worship

  Liz Hayes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Jan. 2 that it has changed longstanding policy to allow taxpayer money to be used to rebuild houses of worship damaged in disasters.

The policy change came after churches in Texas and synagogues in Florida, all represented by the conservative Christian legal group Becket, sued FEMA in an attempt to access grant money for repairs to their facilities, including spaces and items used for religious worship.

Shortly after the three Texas churches filed their lawsuit in Sep­tem­ber in the wake of Hurricane Har­vey, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

Like most nonprofit organizations and businesses, houses of worship are already eligible for government reimbursement for the non-religious, emergency services they provided to aid their communities in disaster recovery. They are also eligible for government loans to rebuild after a storm.

But the Texas and Florida houses of worship also demanded access to a limited pool of government grants for rebuilding, which FEMA policy had made available only to nonprofit organizations that provided emergency or essential, government-like services to the general public.

The new FEMA policy declares that all houses of worship qualify as “com­munity centers.” That makes them eligible for grants, retroactive to Aug. 23, 2017, as long as their facilities aren’t primarily used for “political, athletic, recreational, vocational, or academic training” purposes.

FEMA said its policy change was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2017, opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, a case in which a Missouri church was awarded the ability to apply for a state grant to fund the resurfacing of its preschool playground. The churches suing FEMA also pointed to this Supreme Court decision. Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate legal director, has pointed out to The Texas Tribune and other media outlets that the Trinity decision is not applicable because it dealt with funding for a non-religious function, whereas the hurricane-damaged churches are seeking money for repairs to facilities used for religious purposes.

The courts appeared to agree with AU, which had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case. In December, U.S. District Court Judge Gray Miller declined to grant the Texas churches an emergency request allowing them to apply for FEMA funding while their case was pending. In his opinion, he indicated the Trinity decision did not obligate FEMA to rebuild churches: “FEMA’s funds are contingent on how Plaintiffs plan to use the funds – here, rebuilding facilities used for religious activities. The government has a historical and justifiable interest in avoiding an establishment of religion and using public funds to support religion.”

The churches appealed, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals days later also refused to grant their request. However, due to the FEMA policy change, on Jan. 10 the 5th Circuit declared the case moot.

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