FEMA Changes Course on Disaster Aid for Churches

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) appeared to make a New Year’s resolution by announcing that it will now ensure churches and other houses of worship damaged in disasters can receive aid from its public assistance program. Previously, even though other nonprofit organizations could receive FEMA grants for repair, reconstruction, or replacement of their facilities, houses of worship were declared ineligible. FEMA decided to reverse course based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer ruling last summer to stop similar government discrimination against a church.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), sponsor of the related Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, appreciated FEMA doing “the right thing.” “As we saw again last year, houses of worship serve a vital role during disasters, providing shelter, food, and other services for families who need it the most,” he said. Blunt added that he will continue to push for enactment of his legislation to ensure FEMA’s new rule is made permanent in statute.

FEMA’s decision also comes in the midst of two lawsuits filed by Becket, a legal institute specializing in religious freedom, on behalf of three small Houston-area churches and two Florida synagogues damaged in last year’s devastating hurricanes. Until now, they were excluded from receiving public aid because they are religious. Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, said, “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.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: January 5, 2018

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