Thomas Gallatin / Jan. 3, 2018

FEMA Corrects Course on Church Aid

The agency changes its policy and will now allow houses of worship to apply for disaster relief funds.

On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reversed course on churches and disaster money. It had previously excluded churches from applying for disaster relief aid but will now allow them to do so, retroactive to August 23, 2017. This decision comes after lawsuits were brought by three Texas churches against the agency as well as pressure from President Donald Trump, who had tweeted that churches should receive FEMA aid for helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Prior to the policy change, FEMA had allowed “community centers” and other nonprofits to apply for and receive federal emergency funds, but the agency had specifically excluded houses of worship due to the fact that they were used for “religious activities, such as worship, proselytizing or religious instruction.” Lawyers for the Texas churches argued that such a policy was discriminatory and unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

Pastor Charles Stoker of the Hi-Way Tabernacle, one of the churches suing FEMA, said that his church sheltered 80 to 90 evacuees, many of whom were not members of the church or even religious. Stoker said, “We’re not trying to cram religion down someone’s throat, we’re trying to help them recover, to show them love.” Stoker’s church was severely damaged by flooding and his lawyer noted that many churches serve as “hubs for the community” and that FEMA’s “denying help to them, to these churches, denies help to the community.”

FEMA’s new policy states that “private nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature.” This is indeed welcome news and the correct decision even from a purely practical point of view. As we noted last September, churches and faith-based groups spearheaded the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and outperformed FEMA. Quite simply, it behooves the agency to support local churches who are often better prepared to deal with natural disasters because they know and are already heavily invested in their communities.

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