1AP’s 3 Things to Know–FEMA’s Disaster Relief for Churches Policy
- When disaster strikes, churches and faith-based groups that grow out of them provide the majority of emergency relief services for their communities. Over 18,000 congregations in the United States have disaster relief programs. The United Methodist Church alone has over 20,000 trained volunteers who sprung into action after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. But it is much more difficult for churches to care for the physical and emotional needs of their neighbors when they are not being helped themselves. Serving meals and providing shelter to others is impossible without a roof over your own head (or kitchen or narthex or sanctuary).
- For two decades, FEMA policy misinterpreted the 1st Amendment in a way that discriminated against houses of worship. It dictated that houses of worship may only receive funding in proportion to the “critical services” they provide, a limitation not placed on community centers or other nonprofits. Many churches do not even apply because in the immediate aftermath of disaster, their time is better spent doing the best they can to rebuild than filing government forms for aid that will certainly be denied. In 2015, Congress got close to repealing this policy, and it even passed in the House before dying in the Senate.
- In light of the 2017 Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA is changing course and getting it right. Last year, the Supreme Court held that a religious organization could not be excluded from consideration for a state government program solely for being religious. This decision, alongside lawsuits filed by three churches and two synagogues, pushed FEMA to reconsider its policy and update it to not exclude houses of worship. The updated policy is being retroactively applied to August 2017, so houses of worship affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irene can now apply for aid. Moving forward, this policy change will ensure that houses of worship can rebuild and better serve their neighbors after natural disasters.