FEMA Shift Opens Door to Disaster Funds for Religious Groups

Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reversed its long-standing policy of excluding religious organizations and houses of worship from applying for federal aid following natural disasters.

This policy reversal followed a major First Amendment decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri. Trinity filed the lawsuit against the State of Missouri because it was excluded from a state program that reimburses the cost of rubberizing the surface of playgrounds.

On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court sided with Trinity ruling that “excluding churches from state programs for which other charitable groups are eligible is a violation of the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion.“

In addition, houses of worship in Texas and Florida, seeking federal aid to repair damages caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, also filed lawsuits against FEMA’s.  These two disasters prompted several members of Congress, as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to push for legislative changes allowing disaster relief funds for houses of worship.  Congress passed the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act on February 9 and it was later signed into law, paving the way for houses of worship to apply for federal disaster relief.

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