FEMA Changes Policies to Allow Churches to Access Disaster Relief Funds

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, visit residents affected by Hurricane Harvey at the First Baptist Rockport Church in Rockport, Texas, in August. | Eric Gay/AP Photo

Less than four months after President Donald Trump suggested churches should be able to receive federal disaster relief funds, officials have changed federal policies to make it easier for religious institutions to qualify for such aid.

With lawsuits pending in Texas and Florida from churches and synagogues challenging the limits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that it is removing language in its rules that has often disqualified religious groups from aid available to other nonprofits.

“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [Public Assistance] nonprofit applicants,” FEMA Recovery Directorate Assistant Administrator Alex Amparo wrote in a new manual released Tuesday.

FEMA said religious institutions could now qualify as “community centers” eligible for disaster grants, though facilities primarily used for “political, athletic … recreational, vocational, or academic training” will still be barred from receiving support.

Amid the Hurricane Harvey relief effort last September, Trump declared that the federal government was treating churches unfairly.

“Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” the president tweeted.

It was not clear what specific relief programs Trump was addressing, but the revised policy FEMA made public Tuesday will be retroactive to cover damage incurred as early as Aug. 23, 2017, providing relief to houses of worship affected by Harvey.

Amparo said the recent policy change was driven by a Supreme Court decision issued in June finding that the State of Missouri violated the Constitution when it excluded the Trinity Lutheran Church day care center in Columbia, Missouri, from receiving state funds for playground resurfacing.

“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 FEMA official said.

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SOURCE: Politico, Josh Gerstein