By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is revising its policies to no longer exclude houses of worship from applying for federal aid to recover from damages caused by natural disasters.
The policy change was outlined in the agency’s revised 217-page manual: “Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide” issued Jan. 2.
This change is not just for damage caused in future disasters but also affects claims made by churches last year from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma because it can be applied retroactively to claims made “on or after Aug. 23, 2017.”
An introduction to the new FEMA manual credits the change in policy to a Supreme Court decision last June, which ruled that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church. The court’s 7-2 decision specifically referred to the church-run preschool and said it should not be excluded from a state grant program to refurbish its playground surface just because it is a religious entity.
“In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility,” the agency’s new document says, pointing out that houses of worship would not be excluded from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility.
Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for the Becket Fund, representing Texas churches and Florida synagogues that have sued FEMA over not getting federal disaster aid, welcomed the policy change.
“Better late than never,” he said in a statement. “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 implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities.”