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God's Servant First: New FEMA policy helps, but disaster relief fairness should be law


by Aaron Matthew Weldon

January 12, 2018

After hurricanes hit Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, Catholic bishops and Jewish rabbis came together to call for fairness in funding for disaster relief.  For years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had maintained a policy of excluding houses of worship from federal disaster relief grants simply because of their religious nature.  

Thanks be to God, FEMA has changed its unjust policy.

Including houses of worship in funding for disaster relief is sensible and fair.  During and after disasters, these places often shelter people whose homes are damaged.  They even serve as staging grounds for FEMA operations.  These religious institutions help others in times of great need.  Now, they are in need, and it is only right that the government return the favor.

Houses of worship are vital parts of their neighborhoods and cities.  They serve their communities.  And the people of these communities have spiritual as well as material needs.  The Catholic Church's Declaration on Religious Liberty recognizes that a well-functioning government will not neglect the spiritual aspect of its citizens: "Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare" (Dignitatis humanae, 3).

If the federal government aims to rebuild disaster-stricken communities, it cannot leave churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in a lurch.

Religious groups are not asking for special treatment—just fair treatment.  In last year's recent Supreme Court case of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the high Court recognized that the government cannot discriminate against religious institutions as to publicly available benefits simply because they are religious.  So disaster relief grants that are made available to other public-serving nonprofit organizations should be available to houses of worship on equal terms.

FEMA has made the right decision in including houses of worship in its disaster relief program.

Even so, FEMA's policy is, and always was, just a policy.  While we are grateful that FEMA has changed course for the better, in a future administration, FEMA could go back to the old, unfair policy.  So it is important that the new policy be established in law.

A legislative solution exists by way of the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017.  The language of this bill has already passed in the House as part of a disaster assistance package, but the legislation awaits action in the Senate.  Congress can ensure that, just as houses of worship will always be there to support their communities in times of disaster, FEMA has their back when houses of worship themselves have been damaged or destroyed.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Committee for Religious Liberty.

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