The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recently announced that they will remove restrictions on places of worship for disaster relief aid, contrary to a 46- year-old court ruling, to open the door for assistance to those places of worship who have been hit by a natural disaster in the U.S.
The new FEMA guidelines conflict with the 1971 Tilton v. Richardson Supreme Court decision that indicates that offering public funds for disaster aid would violate the establishment clause for religious colleges/universities, and prohibit them from ever using a facility they built with those funds for religious purposes.
The policy allowed “community centers” and other nonprofits to receive FEMA assistance for repairs from a natural disaster, but it specifically excluded any type of building used for worship like churches, synagogues, or mosques, that are used primarily for “religious activities, such as worship, proselytizing or religious instruction.”
With the help of the 2016 Trinity Lutheran decision, which indicated that a church had the right to apply to a public program to repair its playground, the Tilton v. Richardson decision has been challenged. Damaged by Hurricane Harvey, three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues sued for FEMA rebuilding funds. Because they were denied by a federal judge, the churches appealed the decision and took their case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Their lawyers argued that FEMA’s policy constituted “discrimination” and therefore violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.
House Passes Disaster Relief Bill
Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives was working hard to pass a disaster relief bill (H.R. 4667) that says houses of worship are allowed to apply for FEMA aid for rebuilding, but the money can only be used to “cover costs of purchasing or replacing, without limitation, the building structure, building enclosure components, building envelope, vertical and horizontal circulation, physical plant support spaces, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems (including heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and fire and life safety systems), and related site improvements.”
The church would not be allowed to use the aid for the repair or replacement of anything that is said to be ’strictly a religious character’ such as its pews, altar, and pulpit.
With this decision comes questions and concerns over the new policy changes. One topic of concern is whether the government, by offering aid and assistance, is substituting for the church parishioner, or are they simply assisting with extraordinary circumstances due to the natural disaster?
According to Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, “Tilton involved substituting the public for a private donor. Disaster relief provides no opportunity for the government to become a supporter of the church.”
Others conclude that the aid from FEMA to help the churches repair the building structure would indeed help the church carry out its religious mission. So, it could also be viewed as a form of state aid comparable to its (constitutionally permitted) exemption from having to pay property taxes.
Currently, nonprofit facilities that are eligible for FEMA aid include: museums, performing arts facilities, libraries, community arts centers, zoos, food banks, community centers, homeless shelters and workshops, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, and broadcasting facilities. Those facilities used primarily for political, athletic, recreational, vocational, academic training, and conferences are not eligible for FEMA assistance.
A Win for Religious Organizations
While the FEMA funding decision does not affect a large amount of organizations, those in the religious sector are grateful for the recognition houses of worship are receiving from FEMA.
This is an important issue to many faith groups, especially since the past 10 years have seen religious conservatives challenged more on their policies by liberal as well as secular forces. Executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, Nathan Diament, thanked President Trump for the progress.
“We thank the Trump administration for righting this longtime 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 stricken by natural disaster,” he said.
According to FEMA, the new policy says, “private nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature.” The updated policy is retroactive and is effective immediately for natural disasters on/after August 23, 2017.
~ 1776 Christian