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FEMA: Churches now eligible for recovery funds

WASHINGTON (BP) — Churches whose facilities have been damaged by natural disasters now are eligible to receive relief funds from the federal government, according to a Jan. 2 announcement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [public assistance] nonprofit applicants,” FEMA Recovery Directorate Assistant Administrator Alex Amparo wrote in a guide outlining the change in policy. The guide defines, among other matters, the types of nonprofit organizations eligible to receive funding as “community centers” under the federal Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

In the wake of damage to Texas churches by Hurricane Harvey in August, President Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott both had urged FEMA to make houses of worship eligible to receive the same type of disaster relief funds available to other nonprofits.

In the past, FEMA has denied aid to houses of worship after such disasters as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 because their buildings were used primarily for religious purposes, Baptist Press reported in September.

Three small Texas churches sued FEMA Sept. 5 for access to disaster recovery funding available to other nonprofits.

Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said FEMA’s policy change “is in the public interest.”

“While we should be cautious of government entanglements that can accompany financial help, the Gospel ministries of Southern Baptist churches are crucial and beneficial to their communities,” Richards told BP in written comments. “Neighborhoods and towns will recover more quickly as churches are able to continue the good work they began even as the floodwaters in South Texas were rising. We welcome this announcement that the federal government will assist churches to restore their facilities.”

In contrast, the Interfaith Alliance, a group that seeks to maintain boundaries between religion and government, urged 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.”

“Even under these painful circumstances and motivated by compassion,” the Interfaith Alliance stated in a Jan. 3 news release, “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. Federal subsidies, including FEMA funds for recovery, come with federal demands.”

FEMA, in announcing its policy change, cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that the state of Missouri could not bar a Lutheran church from participating in a government-funded playground resurfacing program simply because it was a church.

“In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision,” the program and policy guide stated, “FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility and determined that it will revise its interpretation” of the Stafford Act “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.”

According to a Jan. 2 FEMA news release, houses of worship are eligible to apply for FEMA assistance “if their facilities suffered damage from an event declared a major disaster on or after August 23, 2017, or … if they had applications pending with FEMA” as of that date “that have not yet been resolved by FEMA.”

As with funding for other nonprofit organizations, FEMA assistance for churches under the Stafford Act is limited to repair or replacement costs not covered by a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the release stated. In order to receive FEMA funding, houses of worship must first apply for an SBA loan and either be denied or receive an insufficient amount to cover building repairs.