Houses of worship are now eligible for taxpayer money through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief grants for those affected by natural disasters — also called “Acts of God” — according to the government agency’s newly published policy.
The move comes after three churches in Texas sued FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, saying they deserved government funds for their disaster relief efforts. That also prompted some politicians to put forth legislation that would allow taxpayer money to go to the churches’ rebuilding efforts, raising questions about separation of church and state.
“Nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment” in receiving public assistance, according FEMA’s new Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide.
FEMA pointed to the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran decision from this past summer, which found that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated the Constitution when it denied Trinity Lutheran Church money to renovate its playground “solely because it was a church.”
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.
The Secular Coalition for America, which fights for church/state separation, condemned FEMA’s decision. A government that “truly values religious freedom” shouldn’t be in the “business of building churches,” said Executive Director Larry T. Decker:
“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. The principle of religious freedom, protected by the First Amendment, guarantees all Americans the right to decide for themselves what religious institutions, if any, they support with their money. Our hearts go out to all those impacted by natural disasters, but the wall of separation between church and state must endure through the best and worst of times.”
Decker also pointed out that this move extends far beyond the Trinity Lutheran case, and he’s absolutely right. In that lawsuit, the church was granted public funds for a playground because it was a “secular” part of the church. Rebuilding the very houses in which people worship is not the same thing.
“FEMA’s new guidelines explicitly disregard this condition. It is, frankly, appalling but unsurprising to see the religious right exploiting natural disasters to justify using FEMA like an ATM.”
It’s not like atheists and other secular supporters of church/state separation are the only people saying this. There are also Christians who don’t want the government getting involved with churches even when it helps them out. That line protects government from religious influences, and churches from being controlled by the state.
Not everyone agrees, though.
Pastor Charles Stoker of Hi-Way Tabernacle hailed FEMA’s new ruling, which will likely be challenged in court, saying, “What a way to start 2018!”
“It’s been a cold day, and this news will warm us all up here! 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 Harvey.”
Potential violations of church/state separation, threats of nuclear war with North Korea, and a Flat Earther/rapper telling Bill Nye he needs to read more. What a way to start 2018, indeed.
***Update***: Several other groups have spoken out against this decision by FEMA.
“It is shameful that the Trump Administration would misapply federal law in order to justify giving disaster relief funding to religious organizations, rather than to people and communities,” said Alison Gill, legal and policy director of American Atheists. “This is a jaw-dropping abrogation of the government’s obligation to protect taxpayers from being forced to directly fund religious activities with their tax dollars. This illegal change in policy would, for the purpose of disaster relief, deem religious worship an essential government-type service.”
“FEMA should focus on providing relief to the individuals and local governments affected by natural disasters, not giving special handouts to churches and houses of worship to perform religious activities. That is a blatantly unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment,” Gill added.
“The new policy is nothing more than an opportunistic attempt to siphon funds from taxpayers to churches,” charges FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Interfaith Alliance president Rabbi Jack Moline:
“… the distribution of public funds through FEMA to any or all tax-exempt religious institutions is a mistake that trades a short-term benefit for long-term problems.
“We strongly urge individual citizens to contribute to recovery and restoration efforts in their own faith communities and in the neighborhoods that make up their local communities. With equal vigor, we urge FEMA to rescind this administrative ruling to avoid the inevitable pain for institutions and their members that will result from legal challenges that will delay and, we hope, overturn this decision.
“And we urge Congress to ensure that new tax laws enable private contributors to enjoy the encouragements that have girded the historic generosity of American taxpayers.”
(Image via Shutterstock)