- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Four Republican senators introduced a bill Monday that would allow churches to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance program grants, putting the houses of worship on the same playing field as non-religious nonprofits.

Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, along with Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, say churches should be eligible for disaster relief money, because houses of worship often serve as shelters in communities plagued by natural disasters.

FEMA allows nonprofits that serve the public benefit to apply for disaster relief funds, but the agency explicitly excludes facilities primarily used for religious activities.

The senators’ Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act comes after three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey asked a federal court earlier this month to rule FEMA’s policy unconstitutional.

“This policy is discriminatory and wrong,” Mr. Cruz said. “We must ensure that religious organizations are eligible for federal assistance on the same terms as other nonprofits after being damaged or destroyed during natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

A Supreme Court ruling earlier this year allowed a Missouri church to receive a state grant in order to improve the safety of its playground. The court said a house of worship can’t be excluded from a public benefit just because it’s a religious institution.

“Likewise, 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,” Mr. Lankford said. “They should be able to apply for these grants just like other entities.”

FEMA’s Public Assistance program provides aid for reconstruction, repairs or replacement of damaged facilities.

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