How a Playground Led to Churches Qualifying for Federal Disaster Relief

Three churches in Texas and two Jewish synagogues in Florida filed lawsuits challenging the exclusion for FEMA funding.

Non-profits have typically been ineligible from receiving FEMA funds if the damaged facilities were established or used primarily for religious services, religious education, or religious activities, such as “worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large.”

 

The Story: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently changed rules that disqualified churches from disaster relief aid available to other nonprofits.

The Background: In the wake of natural disasters—such as last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which caused more than $200 billion in damage—privately run non-profit organizations often receive federal grants to rebuild and restore their facilities. According to FEMA, the purpose of these grants is to provide funds so that “communities can quickly respond to and recover from major disasters or emergencies declared by the President.”

However, non-profits have typically been ineligible from receiving such funds if the damaged facilities were established or used primarily for religious services, religious education, or religious activities, such as “worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large.” Three churches in Texas and two Jewish synagogues in Florida had filed lawsuits challenging the exclusion, but FEMA decided to change the rules because of the Supreme Court’s decision in an important religious liberty case from last year, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

Last week FEMA issued a revision to their Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, which reads:

In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility and determined that it will revise its interpretation of the aforementioned statutory and regulatory authorities so as not to exclude houses of worship from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility.

The revision will be made retroactive to cover damage incurred as early as August 23, 2017, providing relief to churches affected by Hurricane Harvey.

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