With New Budget Bill, Government Will Help Rebuild Churches Destroyed by Hurricanes

Vice President Mike Pence speaks before First Baptist Rockport Church in Texas, which was affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks before First Baptist Rockport Church in Texas, which was affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Tucked among the provisions in the budget bill passed by Congress on Friday are new rules about how FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, works with houses of worship. According to the new law, religious nonprofits can’t be excluded from disaster aid just because of their religious nature, which had been the agency’s policy in certain contexts prior to January.

The move resolves a long-standing controversy over the agency’s policy on religious aid, mostly recently raised during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which damaged a number of houses of worship in the South. It’s also part of a significant trend: Rules on government money going to religious organizations are loosening, a shift that has consequences well beyond disaster aid and emergency management.

Last summer, when Hurricane Harvey ripped across islands in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Texas, it left roughly $125 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—second in cost only to Hurricane Katrina. Worse, it was followed almost immediately by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which further devastated Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and other areas.

Among the many buildings that were damaged were churches and synagogues that got flooded and wrecked. Despite religious organizations’ key role in disaster-recovery efforts, houses of worship weren’t equally eligible for federal disaster-relief and rebuilding funds. As a result, a number of groups, including three churches in Texas and an Orthodox Jewish organization in Florida, sued the government.

Early on, it was clear that they had the White House on their side. “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” President Trump tweeted in September. From a legal perspective, time was arguably on their side as well. The hurricanes hit roughly one month after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, ruling that governments can’t discriminate against religious organizations in awarding grants simply because of their religious nature. The lawsuits relied heavily on that decision, reasoning that the disaster-aid exclusions were analogous to the situation presented in the case.

In January, FEMA took steps to resolve the dispute with new guidelines on eligibility for its public-assistance program, which provides grant money for debris removal, emergency protection, and facility repairs for certain kinds of organizations. In light of Trinity Lutheran, it decided, it would reinterpret the Stafford Act, the law that governs eligibility for disaster aid.

While these new guidelines changed the situation for houses of worship, they were ultimately impermanent and vulnerable to revision under a new administration. That’s where Congress’s new budget bill comes in: It revised the text of the Stafford Act itself. Under the new law, which was signed by Trump on Friday, houses of worship can’t be excluded from aid provided to other nonprofits, including schools, hospitals, and elder-care facilities, just because they’re led by people “who share a religious faith or practice.” This includes money for the “repair, restoration, and replacement of damaged facilities.”

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The Atlantic