The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) revised its policies for 2018, making churches eligible to receive federal aid in the wake of natural disasters.
FEMA released a new guide to its public assistance program in which it states explicitly that houses of worship and other nonprofit religious buildings will be eligible to receive federal aid, according to Christianity Today. The change in policy came as a welcome announcement to Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assemblies of God, three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey whose lawsuit against FEMA forced agency officials to reconsider their policies concerning houses of worship.
“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [public assistance] nonprofit applicants,” Alex Amparo, assistant administrator of FEMA’s recovery directorate, wrote in the guide’s foreword.
Amparo cited the Supreme Court’s decision in the Trinity Lutheran case as the basis for the decision to reform FEMA’s policies and offer federal relief funding to houses of worship. FEMA officials decided that their past policies were in error, given the Supreme Court’s ruling that refusal to grant a public benefit to a church on the basis of religious purposes constituted a violation of the First Amendment.
FEMA’s reforms come in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s request that the agency address the three aforementioned Texas churches whose lawsuit is currently pending before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. One of the churches, Hi-Way Tabernacle, was refused aid serving as an emergency shelter and a FEMA response base that provided medical treatment, haircuts and more than 8,000 meals in Harvey’s destructive wake.
“By finally following the Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches,” said Becket attorney Daniel Blomberg, who is representing the churches. “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.”
FEMA’s decision also garnered praise from Sen. James Lankford, who is a Southern Baptist pastor, and Charles Stoker, pastor of Hi-Way Tabernacle.
“FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups,” Stoker said, according to CT.
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