It took a federal lawsuit by three churches damaged in Hurricane Harvey, but the federal government has reversed a long-standing policy that kept houses of worship from getting hurricane and disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The rule change will have a significant and immediate impact on churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that are helping their surrounding communities. Many of the structures housing these religious organizations sustained extensive damage when Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas. It follows a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a Missouri case that pitted Trinity Lutheran Church against the state of Missouri: the church had sued after having been denied a grant to refurbish its playground, and the court agreed that the denial represented a violation of the institution’s First Amendment right. FEMA has interpreted that ruling as meaning that houses of worship should not be denied a widely available public benefit.
New FEMA Rules Means Religious Institutions Can Receive Financial Benefits Previously Denied Them
The three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey were not alone in their pursuit of a legal remedy. Two Florida synagogues filed similar lawsuits following damage by Hurricane Irma. All argued against the denial of aid to faith-based nonprofit organizations. According to FEMA, the change applies to all disasters declared since August 23rd of 2017.
Speaking of the policy change, Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America said, “We at the Orthodox Union have been working for more than 15 years to have this policy changed. We thank the Trump Administration for righting this long-term wrong and treating disaster-damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship fairly – on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers and libraries struck by natural disasters.”