By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
After months of legal appeals and pressure from religious institutions devastated by recent hurricanes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that houses of worship are now eligible to receive federal relief.
In an updated “Policy Assistance Program and Policy Guide,” the agency said “private nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature.”
The agency also noted that the new policy would be applied retroactively to claims made “on or after August 23, 2017,” so as to include relief for buildings damaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The religious liberty law firm Becket filed suit on behalf of three churches seeking federal funding to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated their Texas properties. At the time, FEMA had refused funding due to the fact that houses of worship were barred from federal relief. Soon after the original suit was filed, President Donald Trump released a tweet offering his support for the churches seeking federal funding.
“Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” he wrote in a tweet on Sept. 8. Becket also filed a parallel lawsuit on behalf of two Florida synagogues damaged by Hurricane Irma.
Last month, the district court for the Southern District of Texas denied the churches a temporary injunction, which would have allowed them to file for relief and in response, Becket filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, responded to this week’s policy reversal by labeling it “better late than never.”
“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,” said Blomberg. “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.”
Yet the change in policy also has its critics, among them the Secular Coalition for America. In response to FEMA’s decision, the advocacy group’s executive director Larry T. Decker issued a statement expressing his disapproval. “A government that truly values religious freedom can never be in the business of building churches,” said Decker.
Becket, however, argues that the scope of these institutions extend far beyond worship or religious practice. In an interview last September, Blomberg said, “Houses of worship are on the front lines of disaster recovery efforts. It makes no sense for FEMA to continue to discriminate against churches; it’s time to start helping the helpers.”
Since the 1990s, FEMA has barred religious institutions from receiving federal relief – despite the fact that religious organizations have been lauded for being among the most effective workers on the front lines of providing assistance to victims.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Bush administration ordered FEMA to reimburse houses of worship for food, supplies, and other necessities provided to the public. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a bipartisan bill to amend the FEMA policy and allow religious institutions equal footing was overwhelmingly passed by the United States House of Representatives in a 354-72 vote. The bill, however, died in a Senate committee and therefore was never enacted.
Becket had argued that the original FEMA policy was now in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment under Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. In June 2017, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case, said religious institutions have the same rights as secular institutions to participate in public programs, and in announcing the new policy, FEMA specifically cited this decision as this basis for their policy change.
Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have caused nearly $200 billion dollars in damage, and Hurricane Irma is believed to have caused up to another $65 billion.
In response, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has collected over $38.5 million for hurricane relief, and the Knights of Columbus has pledged $1.4 million for church repairs in Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In response to the announcement, pastor Charles Stoker of Hi-Way Tabernacle in Texas, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, said it was a wonderful way to start the New Year.
“We’re delighted that FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups,” said Stoker, “and we look forward to continuing to help our neighbors as they recover from Harvey.”