FEMA Reconsiders Ban On Relief Aid To Churches

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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FEMA is considering lifting their ban on relief aid to church buildings in the face of a lawsuit from three churches who aided Hurricane Harvey victims.

FEMA denies relief aid to houses of worship despite the fact that many faith based organizations not only act as first responders to victims of natural disasters, but also routinely outdo FEMA in the amount of aid delivered and help victims navigate the complicated process of applying for federal relief, according to the Associated Press.

That policy may change, however, as FEMA faces the first hearing in a lawsuit Tuesday from three Texas churches that sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Harvey and received no relief aid despite serving as emergency shelters and as FEMA operations sites in some cases.

FEMA policy forbids aid to be given to “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities,” but the three churches in question — Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assemblies of God — are challenging that policy on the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case.

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

FEMA can give grants to institutions affiliated with churches, like schools and hospitals, and does sometimes provide funds for the repair of church facilities, but only if less than 50 percent of said facilities are used for religious activities. While FEMA has authorized $113 million in aid given to religious affiliated facilities over the past 5 years, none of that money has gone to houses of worship despite their use as emergency shelters.

A court filing from the Department of Justice said that FEMA’s policies toward houses of worship were being reconsidered in the course of the lawsuit, according to AP.

Several other houses of worship damaged by hurricanes added their voices of support. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and Congregation Torah Vachesed, which received no aid after being flooded by Harvey, filed amicus briefs on behalf of the three churches, with Congregation Torah Vachesed claiming that the “pernicious effect of FEMA’s policy of explicit discrimination” was “to deter and discourage the exercise of the Jewish faith.”

“We’re just asking to get help. I mean, we’re struggling,” Frazier told AP. Frazier’s 125 member church could not afford to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey ripped off the sanctuary’s doors and roof. FEMA denied their request for aid and directed them to loan options and private insurance coverage.

Concurrent with the lawsuit are the efforts of members of Congress to pass legislation first introduced in 2012 that would make it impossible for FEMA to deny aid to sanctuaries based on their religious status.

“It is the faith community that responds so robustly to the need. And then to say, ‘Tough luck, we’re not going to help you put your own facility back together’ is wrong,” New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith, the bill’s sponsor, told AP.

Some organizations, like Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), voiced opposition to the idea of supplying federal aid for the repair of religious buildings.

“I really can’t see anything more core and more of an establishment of religion than building a house of worship,” Maggie Garrett, an attorney for AUSCS, told AP.

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