Agency revises guidelines due to last year’s biggest Supreme Court religious freedom case.
Churches suing the US government for funds to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey received some good news at the start of 2018: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has revised its policies to make churches eligible for federal assistance following a disaster.
In the very first line of the 200-page-plus guide for FEMA’s public assistance program, the agency explicitly clarifies its new stance welcoming churches and other religious facilities that offer public services.
“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [public assistance] nonprofit applicants,” wrote Alex Amparo, assistant administrator of FEMA’s recovery directorate.
FEMA cites last year’s major US Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which the high court decided that a church could not be deemed ineligible for a public benefit (in that case, grant funding to resurface a playground) solely due to its religious nature.
“In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility and determined that it will revise its interpretation of the aforementioned statutory and regulatory authorities so as not to exclude houses of worship from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility,” states the new 2018 policy.
Because FEMA’s public assistance program is offered to organizations providing public services, it has previously deemed religious facilities—along with political, athletic, vocational, and academic buildings—to be ineligible. It specifically barred organizations …
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