The Federal Emergency Management Agency changed its policies to allow damaged churches and other houses of worship to receive disaster relief aid.
The revised policies state “private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment” compared to other not-for-profit applicants. The new policies are retroactive to disasters declared on or after Aug. 23, 2017.
FEMA revised its policies in light of two lawsuits—one from three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey and the other from a pair of Florida synagogues affected by Hurricane Irma. The case involving the Texas churches is on appeal, and the Florida synagogues’ case is pending in federal district court in Key West.
The suits challenged a policy that allowed some nonprofit community centers to receive FEMA funds to repair storm-damaged facilities but excluded buildings used for religious activities.
Daniel Blomberg with Becket, the law firm that represented the houses of worship in Texas and Florida said, “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. We will watch carefully to make sure that FEMA’s new policy is implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities.”
The FEMA policy guide specifies houses of worship are not considered ineligible for assistance “on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility.”