Atheist Group Upset FEMA Will Help Churches Rebuild After Disasters

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter

American Atheists, a nationwide organization, expressed outrage over FEMA’s recent policy change making churches eligible for federal relief funds in the wake of natural disasters.

The atheist organization, which most recently gained the national spotlight by posting anti-Christmas billboards in several states, railed against the Trump administration for what they called a misapplication of federal law and for giving federal funds to churches that aided the relief efforts and served as emergency shelters and FEMA response bases for their local communities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The organization argued that such funds should go instead toward individuals and communities, despite the fact that congregants and those who received help from houses of worship view them as integral parts of their communities.

“It is shameful that the Trump Administration would misapply federal law in order to justify giving disaster relief funding to religious organizations, rather than to people and communities,” Alison Gill, legal and policy director of American Atheists, said according to the organization’s statement. “This is a jaw-dropping abrogation of the government’s obligation to protect taxpayers from being forced to directly fund religious activities with their tax dollars. This illegal change in policy would, for the purpose of disaster relief, deem religious worship an essential government-type service.”

Christian non-profit organizations proved indispensable, however, in relief efforts to local governments and to FEMA in the wakes of hurricanes Irma and Harvey and outdid FEMA in providing the vast majority of aid to their surrounding communities. Church volunteers and religious non-profit organizations, who served at no cost to their local governments, translated into billions of dollars worth of free aid to their states, since the volunteers count toward the states’ required matching of FEMA’s funds. Those same religious organizations, such as Convoy of Hope, and houses of worship, also set up response stations and distribute aid at FEMA’s request.

FEMA’s 2018 policy change, made in light of SCOTUS’ Trinity Lutheran decision and a lawsuit from three Texas churches, ensures that houses of worship are eligible for federal relief funds and are no longer “be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [public assistance] nonprofit applicants.”

“FEMA can not do what it does so well without the cooperation of faith-based non-profit organizations and churches,” Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, told USA Today. “It’s a beautiful relationship between government and the private sector and it is something to behold.”

Despite rendering invaluable, free aid, many churches damaged by natural disasters were left high and dry by FEMA and denied relief funds under the agency’s previous policies.

American Atheists argued, however, that churches do not provide “essential government-type services” and should therefore be satisfied with being eligible for federally subsidized loans and ineligible to receive federal relief funds for rebuilding.

“American Atheists will continue to monitor the implementation of this policy change and will consider all remedies available to prevent taxpayer money going directly to houses of worship— without accountability or transparency—in order to further their religious activities,” the organization’s statement reads.

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Tags : american atheists christianity donald trump fema hurricane harvey hurricane irma
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