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UPDATE: Should Churches Get FEMA Funds?

by Countable | 1.5.18

UPDATE - January 5, 2018: Following pressure from President Donald Trump and a lawsuit by Texas churches affected by Hurricane Harvey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that churches may now apply for disaster aid.

Previously, FEMA denied disaster relief funds to houses of worship because of their religious status.

Read Countable's original story below.


What’s the story?

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, three churches in Texas are suing the Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA) over the distribution of relief funds.

In the lawsuit - filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston – the churches claim that excluding houses of worship from relief grants violates their First Amendment rights, specifically those of the Free Exercise Clause.

"One of the leading resources for disaster relief has been houses of worship," the lawsuit argues, noting that one of the plaintiffs, Hi-Way Tabernacle, is being used “as a shelter for dozens of evacuees, a warehouse for disaster relief supplies, a distribution center for thousands of emergency meals, and a base to provide medical services.”

FEMA, they say, has "rightly recognized that houses of worship have an essential role as places of refuge during the storm, and as nerve centers of recovery afterwards."

"One would think, then, that houses of worship would also get federal government disaster-relief help on an equal basis with other private nonprofit societal institutions such as community centers and zoos. Yet FEMA policy explicitly denies equal access to FEMA disaster relief grants for houses of worship solely because of their religious status.”

FEMA bans providing relief to buildings where at least half of the building’s space is used for religious purposes.

Why does it matter?

According to the churches, it matters - beyond humanitarian reasons - because of the recent Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer; the case centered around whether a parochial preschool should be allowed to access government grants to make playgrounds safer.

In a 7-2 decision, SCOTUS delivered the opinion that, as Christianity Today put it, "a church could not be kept from applying for a public grant ‘solely because it is a church.’"

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God claim that "the Constitution does not allow [FEMA’s] exclusionary policy to continue."

"Under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment—particularly as interpreted by the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church—government may not discriminate against a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque simply because of its status as a place of religious teaching and worship."

FEMA’s public assistance program, as outlined in its policy guide, focuses on organizations providing public service. As such, it excludes "facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities."

FEMA policy explicitly bans organizations that put on "religious activities, such as worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large."

Applications for FEMA emergency assistance funds are due within 30 days of a presidential disaster declaration. Meaning: nonprofits need to have their Hurricane Harvey-related info submitted to FEMA by Sept. 26.

There’s also currently a bill in Congress about whether tax-exempt houses of worship should be eligible for federal relief.

What do you think?

Should houses of worship be eligible for disaster relief funds? Is denying them FEMA grants a violation of the Free Exercise Clause? Is an attorney for the churches correct when he says that "Churches have been told by FEMA: We will use you, but we will not help you"?

Hit the Take Action button and tell your reps to pressure FEMA one way or the other. And tell your reps how to vote on the bill. Then comment below on whether you think religious institutions should be eligible for FEMA funds.

—Josh Herman

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Leave a comment
(225)
  • Mike
    09/07/2017
    ···

    Absolutely not! Make them pay taxes before they get any taxpayer funded monies

    Like (78)
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  • Daniel
    09/07/2017
    ···

    Houses of worship should only get government funds when and if they pay their share in taxes, no matter what religion. Don't forget that the government is constitutionally bound to not endorse or choose favorites in regards to religion.

    Like (68)
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  • Marcelluswallus
    09/07/2017
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    Yea let's give tax free BUSINESSES financial assistance before feeding and providing clean water for the people who actually pay taxes. Also, what the fuck happened to the separation of CHURCH and state?? Get outta here with this bullshit. Maybe Joel Osteens 70million dollars can cover them.

    Like (42)
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  • Robert
    09/07/2017
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    Only when they start paying taxes

    Like (38)
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  • I.Got.an.Idea...
    09/07/2017
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    Churches should not receive FEMA funds. They are already costing Americans 10's of billions in tax exemptions that only serve a small percentage of special interests groups. Their patrons should be responsible to repair their facilities at their own costs.

    Like (33)
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  • JoysJen
    09/07/2017
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    No, they shouldn't. They already don't pay taxes. I'm a Christian. But, why should tax money be spent to repair buildings of organizations that don't pay any?

    Like (32)
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  • Luke
    09/07/2017
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    If and only if they opened their doors to shelter victims of the hurricane. Tax exempt places of worship that don't practice what they preach should get nothing.

    Like (26)
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  • AlexRoseSc
    09/07/2017
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    Only if they pay taxes

    Like (24)
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  • Thelma
    09/08/2017
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    Places of worship should not be eligible for FEMA funds. Religion is a choice individuals make, and give money in proportion to their income and personal interest. If the owners of a church had insurance, they should be reimbursed based on insurance rules and exemptions. The Federal government, however, should neither support nor promote religion. Religious intuitions are personal choices. If citizens want to rebuild, they can choose to do so. This is not a federal government role.

    Like (22)
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  • momo
    09/07/2017
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    Nope. They don't pay taxes, they push politics from the pulpit, and ignore and try to erode the separation between church and state. The founding fathers didn't want a theocracy for a reason! Pay taxes like everyone else and then we'll revisit.

    Like (20)
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  • Jerry
    09/07/2017
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    No. Absolutely not.

    Like (18)
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  • Michele
    09/08/2017
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    Churches do not pay taxes, and do not contribute to the FEMA funds. If you don't contribute, you can't be covered.

    Like (14)
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  • Joan
    09/07/2017
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    FEMA funding are paid through tax payers money. Churches DO NOT pay taxes so NO they should not get funding. As long as they are exempt from paying taxes makes them ineligible to receive monies.

    Like (12)
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  • GBcares
    09/07/2017
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    No FEMA for churches or church schools.

    Like (11)
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  • Welnoan
    09/07/2017
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    If the church pays taxes it should receive federal assistance

    Like (11)
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  • Karen
    09/08/2017
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    No. Our founding Fathers were dead set against any form of relationship between church and state. This Administration continues to show its contempt for our Constitution in favor of the almighty dollar.

    Like (10)
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  • Joanne
    09/07/2017
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    I feel bad for them having their houses of worship damaged but they don't pay taxes and that angers me. If houses of worship paid taxes than I would say say they should collect from FEMA.

    Like (9)
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  • Brian
    09/07/2017
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    No churches should not get FEMA funds

    Like (9)
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  • Jorjita56
    09/07/2017
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    No and I don't want church and state mixed ever in this country.

    Like (9)
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  • Leon
    09/07/2017
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    No, relief is for individuals.

    Like (9)
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