Written by Don Byrd

[This post has been updated with a statement from the BJC]

One story I have watched closely over the last several weeks involves the legal challenge brought by three churches demanding access to FEMA grants to rebuild churches in the wake of hurricane damage. Now, FEMA has announced changes to their policy to allow direct government grants to houses of worship.

The plaintiff churches argued in court that the longstanding prohibition on direct aid to houses of worship, which is designed to protect the separation of church and state, amounts to unlawful discrimination against religion, and requested an injunction halting the policy. A federal judge, however, rejected their request and sided with the Baptist Joint Committee and other groups supporting the policy, saying “the government has a historical and justifiable interest in avoiding an establishment of religion and using public funds to support religion.” 

Meanwhile, FEMA declined to defend its own rule in court, saying instead it was reviewing the policy and would be making changes. Now those policy changes have been issued, removing entirely the restrictions barring government grants from being used to rebuild churches. Citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church, the agency explained that the rules were revised “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.”

In a statement to the Baptist Standard, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman said the FEMA policy change is “problematic” and not required by the court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. “Our constitutional tradition has long treated churches as a special category to protect their unique status,” Hollman said. “It is not within the government’s authority to build churches, nor should the government have the power to decide which houses of worship get rebuilt after a disaster.” Read the article online.

You can view the entire revised FEMA Policy Guide here. The changes are outlined on pages vii and viii.

In its press release, FEMA explains that “[t]hese changes are effective for disasters declared on or after August 23, 2017 and for applications for assistance that were pending with FEMA as of August 23, 2017, including applications on first- or second-level appeal, that as of today have not yet been resolved by FEMA.”

The Houston Chronicle reports the announcement “means the three churches and any other religious institutions that provide service to their broader local communities can immediately be eligible for Harvey aid, according to newly published FEMA documents.”

For more, see Courthouse News’ helpful coverage here.