Houses of worship in North and South Carolina are looking into getting taxpayer funds to help them rebuild in the wake of a devastating hurricane. The storm, Hurricane Florence, targeted the Carolinas in September, killing dozens and leaving massive amounts of property damage in its wake.
In the past, houses of worship and institutions used primarily for religious purposes have not been eligible for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that’s changing under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Last year, Trump ordered FEMA officials to offer tax aid to churches, arguing that the Supreme Court has permitted such assistance in certain cases – a claim many advocates of church-state separation dispute.
“Obviously many of them were impacted and we have seen a number of requests for assistance and direction on how to get help,” Kevin Smith, director for the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives in the Department of Homeland Security, told Religion News Service (RNS) last month.
RNS reported that to get federal aid, houses of worship “must first recover what they can from their insurance policies. If insurance doesn’t cover the cost of repairs, they must then apply for a low-interest loan from the federal Small Business Administration. If no loan is granted, or not enough of a loan is granted, congregations may then apply for reimbursement from FEMA through the state’s emergency management division.”
In addition, houses of worship can get aid only if they can prove they have served their communities.
“Part of that process is for them to identify and support that they are a critical response in that community and play a critical role in helping the community recover,” said Smith.
Americans United argues that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for repairs or rebuilding houses of worship.
“We know it’s a hard time for a lot of people, and our hearts are with those who are suffering,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United. “But even in difficult times, we have to follow the Constitution and the values that protect all of us. You can’t get much more at the heart of establishing a religion than building a church or a house of worship. That’s our concern.”