As churches hit hard by the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and beyond begin to rebuild, they may have trouble receiving federal grants set aside for nonprofit entities.
Under the current law, houses of worship are not specifically listed as examples of eligible nonprofit agencies, nor are they specifically excluded. Nonetheless, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are being “categorically denied” federal funding to rebuild solely based on their religious purposes, according to Becket, a nonprofit legal institute.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Becket has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three churches in Texas, arguing that houses of worship should not be excluded from FEMA aid. This action follows a Supreme Court decision in June 2017 which held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment was violated when a church was denied a public benefit solely because of religious identity.
The denial of federal assistance to repair and rebuild churches represents an unusual paradox given the fact that recent figures show that faith-based organizations, including many churches, represent 75% of the disaster relief response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. “FEMA has repeatedly praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship as staging areas for relief efforts,” says Becket. “But it denies them equal access to emergency relief simply because they are religious.”
Update 9/19/17: U.S. Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Roy Blunt (R-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which would make houses of worship eligible for FEMA Public Assistance program grants. Read more here.