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Judge: FEMA Has Three Weeks to Change Policy, Allow Churches to Receive Disaster Relief

Word comes from the Christian Post that a federal judge in Houston is ready to end FEMA’s long-standing policy of not permitting religious institutions to receive federal disaster aid grants. Three Houston, Texas-area churches – Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God – sued FEMA in September over the prohibition. The churches were instrumental in providing badly-needed relief to local residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and are still providing Harvey-related services to this day. Now, federal judge Keith Ellison has decided that FEMA has until December 1 to decide if it’s going to change the policy at issue. If it does not, Judge Ellison has said he will issue a ruling at that time.

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Specifically, FEMA’s current rules stipulate that if more than 50 percent of a nonprofit’s physical space is devoted to religious purposes, it is not eligible to receive federal disaster relief. The justification for the exclusion centers on the notion that if churches were to receive federal funds, it would be tantamount to citizens’ tax money being used to support religion. Advocates of the current policy include the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Annie Laurie Gaylor, who has previously said, “The government can help many individuals and nonprofits rebuild, but not churches. It is a founding principal of our nation that citizens may not be taxed in support of religion and churches.”

However, Daniel Blomberg, an attorney representing the three churches suing FEMA, says, “Discriminating against houses of worship — which are often on the front lines of disaster relief — is not just wrongheaded, it strikes at our nation's most fundamental values.”

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the litigating churches, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston noted that part of what makes FEMA’s policy unfair is that houses of worship providing aid in these kinds of circumstances do so not only to people who are not necessarily parishioners, but to folks who may have no religious affiliation whatsoever.

By Robert G. Yetman, Jr. Editor At Large

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