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Churches can access federal disaster funds under new FEMA policy
Houses of worship were previously barred from participating in FEMA's public assistance program. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
A Lutheran preschool's Supreme Court victory six months ago just paid off for houses of worship affected by natural disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, announced Jan. 2 that, in light of the justices' decision in Trinity Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Comer, it would no longer prevent churches from applying for public assistance funds.

"FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility and determined that it will revise its (policy) so as not to exclude houses of worship," wrote Alex Amparo, assistant administrator of FEMA's recovery directorate, in the foreword to the January 2018 Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide.

This shift may be the beginning of a broad overhaul of federal funding rules, as policymakers approach the separation of church and state through the lens of the Trinity Lutheran decision. The June 2017 ruling centered on whether a religiously affiliated preschool could receive a state grant for safety upgrades to a playground, but it was widely understood to hold repercussions for a variety of other situations involving government funding.

"The decision does not create a free exercise right to government funding of religion, but it unnecessarily blurs the line that ensures religion flourishes on its own," argued the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in a statement released June 26.

Becket, a law firm focused on religious liberty issues, cited the Trinity Lutheran case in the lawsuit it filed against FEMA in September on behalf of three Texas churches that sustained damage during Hurricane Harvey. Attorneys said that FEMA's treatment of houses of worship constituted illegal discrimination.

FEMA previously barred churches, synagogues and other houses of worship from receiving certain forms of federal aid. They could get reimbursed for services offered to disaster-stricken community members, but not access public assistance funds to repair their own buildings.

The previous policy guide stated that "facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational or academic training, conferences or similar activities" were not eligible for the public assistance program. "Religious" has now been deleted from that sentence, Amparo noted.

The policy update applies to emergency incidents declared on or after Aug. 23, 2017, which means that the Hurricane Harvey-affected churches involved in Becket's lawsuit could get the help they requested.

"We're delighted that FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups. And we look forward to continuing to help our neighbors as they recover from (Hurricane) Harvey," said the Rev. Charles Stoker of Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, Texas, in a statement released by Becket.

Although FEMA had hinted at upcoming policy changes and President Donald Trump had tweeted his support for churches, the agency's announcement this week was still met with outcry from organizations worried about federal support for churches.

"A government that truly values religious freedom can never be in the business of building churches," said Larry T. Decker, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. "Houses of worship already have access to funds that reimburse them for their sheltering and feeding operations during natural disasters. This new policy crosses a clear constitutional line by using federal dollars to repair and rebuild facilities primarily used for religious purposes."

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Politico that his organization was considering legal action.

"Our attorneys are looking at the new policy trying to determine the scope of the change," he said. "Giving churches taxpayer support for purely religious uses, such as the rebuilding of sanctuaries, is unconstitutional under current precedent. If the new policy moves in that direction, we believe it is vulnerable."

Future lawsuits would again put the Trinity Lutheran ruling in the spotlight, testing its scope.

The judge who initially ruled on the FEMA lawsuit had said that Trinity Lutheran didn't apply to federal disaster relief decisions. He "denied them an injunction last month, writing that the Trinity Lutheran decision did not mean FEMA was obligated to pay to repair structures used primarily for religious purposes," Politico reported.

The churches appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case is ongoing.

"It seems that FEMA needed a nudge from the lawsuit to follow the Constitution. However, the lawsuit is not over for instance, FEMA has not yet actually started processing our clients' applications. But this is a move in the right direction," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, in a statement to the Deseret News.
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