FEMA reconsiders policy on disaster aid to churches

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency routinely denies aid to churches when they need to repair or rebuild their damaged sanctuaries following disasters, despite the fact that these establishments are often used to house and aid victims.

Following this year’s series of devastating hurricanes, the policy is under consideration as houses of worship in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico struggle to respond to the damages.

According to The Associated Press, FEMA is rethinking its policies in the face of a federal lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing Tuesday. Three Texas churches hit by Hurricane Harvey are challenging the policy, and they have received some verbal support from President Donald J. Trump.

On Twitter, President Trump wrote in September: “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

Several members of Congress have also joined the fight, reviving 2016 legislation that would require FEMA to pay for repairs at places of worship.

The AP reports:

The debate centers on two key questions: Does providing such aid violate the First Amendment separation of church and state? Or is it an infringement on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion to deny churches the same aid available to numerous other nonprofit organizations, such as libraries, zoos and homeless shelters?

“It seems like the only reason churches are excluded is because they’re churches, and it just seems discriminatory to me,” said Bruce Frazier, pastor of Rockport First Assembly of God Church, which is part of the lawsuit.

Religious entities already can receive some government help in disasters. They can be reimbursed by local governments for sheltering evacuees and can receive U.S. Small Business Administration loans to repair their buildings. FEMA grants are available to religiously affiliated schools, health care providers and nursing homes. And FEMA also can provide money to repair church-run facilities that function like community centers, but only if less than half the space or use is for religious purposes.

Over the past five years, FEMA has authorized a net of $113 million for about 500 religiously affiliated entities such as schools, medical clinics and community centers after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other disasters, according to an AP analysis of data made public as part of the lawsuit.

But FEMA hasn’t supplied money to repair sanctuaries, and its 50 percent rule excludes many other types of church facilities.

FEMA would not comment due to the ongoing lawsuit, but in a court filing, the U.S. Justice Department said the policies in question are currently being reconsidered.

“The purpose of the support would not be to subsidize religious worship, ” said Richard W. Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor, “but rather to clean up the community and help local institutions that themselves provide important relief services to those in need.”

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