The federal government has lifted it ban on houses of worship – many of which have served in disaster relief – from receiving federal aid to help rebuild from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday announced “houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature.”
The decision was in response to several lawsuits and a letter to the president that developed after the historic hurricanes damaged major parts of the Gulf Coast in 2017.
The non-profit First Liberty Institute wrote to President Trump on behalf of three Texas churches that had assisted in Hurricane Harvey relief but were blocked from federal funding.
“Today’s announcement by the White House allows our clients to continue to be the bedrocks of their hurricane-ravaged communities,” said Chelsey Youman, counsel for First Liberty. “Thanks to the Trump administration, thousands of houses of worship are again eligible for FEMA relief just like everyone else and can start the process of rebuilding.”
The law at issue is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which governs federal disaster relief. Despite a specific nondiscrimination clause, FEMA deemed religious entities ineligible.
The three churches working with First Liberty were Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy and Grace Community Church.
“I am speechless at the moment. This goes to show you that the faith community is an important component of society and being able to get help enables us to keep serving our community,” said Pastor Jorge Cardenas, Church on the Rock Katy. “Thank God and also our president. We have to continue prayer for him because he has been very in touch with the faith community.”
The Becket Fund brought two legal cases, now at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and in a district court in Key West, on behalf of the three churches and two synagogues.
The organization noted: “Houses of worship were among the first to respond in the aftermath of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma and they continue to provide aid to help their communities recover. Yet FEMA’s [old] policy discriminated against churches and synagogues, while at the same time using them for its own relief efforts.”
Its first case was on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God in Texas for damage from Harvey. The parallel lawsuit was on behalf of Chabad of Key West, which responded to Hurricane Irma.
They wanted access to federal disaster aid on the same footing as secular nonprofits.
The plaintiffs asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alita for emergency relief and he asked FEMA to respond.
“Better late than never,” said Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket. “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 is implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities.”
Bloomberg was citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer in the Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer case. The high court ruled a state could not exclude a playground from a program that provided general benefits to protect children only because it was owned by a church.
“What a way to start 2018!” said Pastor Charles Stoker of Hi-Way Tabernacle, who received the news while finishing a day of distributing meals at the church to about 200 local recipients. “It’s been a cold day, and this news will warm us all up here! We’re delighted that FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups. And we look forward to continuing to help our neighbors as they recover from Harvey.”
Trump tweeted: “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2017
FEMA previously, under a rule adopted before Trump took office, found that any building “using more than half of its space for religious programming should be ineligible for FEMA relief.”
FEMA already provided help to “non-critical” services such as “museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops and facilities which provide health and safety services of a governmental nature.”
“Ironically, although FEMA partners with churches to provide shelters and distribute aid to disaster areas, the PA Policy Guide prohibits those same churches from applying for or receiving such relief,” the churches argued.
Many Texas churches were used as shelters, sometimes until water started inundating their own buildings. They continued to provide help to families even then.
An original complaint in one of the lawsuits explained, “The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake.”
“We are very pleased that the Trump administration responded so efficiently in correcting this policy inherited from the past discriminating against churches who had suffered property loss even while acting as first responders during the same natural disasters,” said Rev. Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastor Council. “First Liberty did a wonderful job of taking our concerns directly where they needed to be heard effectively and without unnecessary litigation. Churches who are in need of this help now have access so they can focus on continuing to minister and serve our communities.”