President Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on Tuesday that it would change its policy to now allow houses of worship to apply for and receive disaster relief funds.
Previously, places of worship were not eligible for disaster relief from FEMA. But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, three Texas churches sued the agency, 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 came out with 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,” was the response from 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 new policy now 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.
In September, Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), and Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz had introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which provides aid to houses of worship in times of disaster.
“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,” Lankford said, adding, “I’m pleased that FEMA is taking this important step.”