President Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a change in policy Tuesday, which would allow houses of worship to apply for and receive disaster relief funds.
FEMA pointed to a Supreme Court ruling from last year, which held a church could receive state money to rebuild its playground, for the reason behind its change in policy. The high court ruled in June houses of worship shouldn’t be excluded from otherwise available public funds.
Previously, FEMA did not give disaster relief aid to places of worship. Three Texas churches sued after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, seeking federal assistance to rebuild.
They appealed to the Supreme Court after being denied the disaster relief and Justice Samuel A. Alito requested FEMA issue a response.
But before the court’s deadline, FEMA issued the Public Assistance and Policy Guide, “clarifying that private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment.”
“Better late than never,” said Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm representing the Texas churches. “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.”
FEMA’s change allows private non-profit organizations, including churches, to receive financial assistance if they suffered damage on or after Aug. 23, or if they have applications currently pending as of that date, according to Tuesday’s press release.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, and Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz had introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, to give houses of worship aid in times of disaster, in September.
“Just like charities, 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. “I’m pleased that FEMA is taking this important step.”