The Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled a new policy on Tuesday that means “houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment” in the future.
The policy was created in response to two lawsuits, one from three Texas churches affected by Hurricane Harvey and the other from two Florida synagogues dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Religious organizations do not typically receive federal funding. However, the religious organizations sued FEMA for not including them in the disaster relief funding package.
“Better late than never,” Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, the nonprofit religious liberty law firm that represents the Texas churches and the Florida synagogues, said in a statement. “By finally following the Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches, which in the words of the Supreme Court was 'odious' to the First Amendment. We will watch carefully to make sure that FEMA’s new policy is implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities.”
FEMA said the precedent for the policy falls under Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, a Supreme Court decision that ruled religious groups must receive equal access to public programs under the First Amendment.
The Harvest Family Church, the Hi-Way Tabernacle, and the Rockport First Assembly of God experienced damages from Harvey. One church lost its steeple, roof, and church van, while the remaining churches experienced flood damages to their facilities, the Texas Tribune reported.
“What a way to start 2018!” Charles Stoker, pastor of Hi-Way Tabernacle, said in a statement. “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.”
FEMA funds were used to help churches rebuild during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, although some questioned whether that was appropriate.
The Texas churches’ case is on appeal at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, meanwhile, the Florida synagogues’ case is awaiting a Key West federal district court.