Churches and other houses of worship have been a lifeline for many in communities affected by recent disasters, particularly the wave of hurricanes this month. However, if damaged themselves, they are currently not permitted to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public assistance program. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and James Lankford (R-Okla.) introduced legislation this week to change that.
The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act would amend the Stafford Act of 1988 to ensure houses of worship are eligible for FEMA grants for repair, reconstruction, or replacement of their facilities in the same way other nonprofit organizations are. Blunt, the bill’s chief sponsor, said, “Houses of worship provide vital support services during natural disasters, including food, comfort, shelter and much more. It is imperative that they have the resources they need to recover and rebuild.”
Notably, this legislation comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Becket, a legal institute specializing in religious freedom, on behalf of three small Houston-area churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey. In Harvest Family Church v. FEMA, those churches are challenging FEMA’s rules excluding them from public aid because they are religious. Paul Capehart, pastor of Harvest Family Church, said, “Our faith is what drives us to help others…. we’re not sure why it keeps FEMA from helping us.”
The current policy, which Cruz of Texas called “discriminatory and wrong,” is particularly noteworthy in light of the recent Trinity Lutheran ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that called the exclusion of a church from a public benefit “odious to our Constitution.” Recalling that 7-2 decision earlier this summer, Lankford said that like Trinity Lutheran Church, “houses of worship that serve our communities and are impacted by natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, should not be disqualified from disaster assistance simply because they are religious in nature.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), author of similar legislation in the House of Representatives, originally introduced his bill in 2013 in the wake of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey and New York. While the House passed that bill by a 354-72 margin, it and a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) were kept bottled up in a Senate committee. This week Smith said, “The discriminatory policy of excluding houses of worship from disaster relief is not prescribed in any law. The previous Administration simply refused to help them. We have an opportunity to change this through future federal disaster assistance programs.”
For his part, President Donald Trump expressed his solidarity with churches needing help. In a tweet last week, he said, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: September 22, 2017