Should Churches Be Denied Disaster Relief Funds Simply Because They Are Religious?


Sarah Kramer

The very faith that motivated Texas churches to aid their communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is the same faith that was used to exclude them from receiving disaster relief funds.

Why? According to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) policy at the time, churches could not receive federal disaster relief funds because of their religious status.

But the Constitution and our Supreme Court victory in the Trinity Lutheran case last year say otherwise.

Fortunately, earlier this week, FEMA officials announced policy changes that make it easier for churches to receive federal disaster relief funds. This move came after President Trump tweeted his support for Texas churches seeking assistance from FEMA after suffering their own damages in the hurricane. 

"Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)." - Donald J. Trump 

As the president pointed out, many churches in Texas assisted in relief efforts in Harvey’s aftermath. And, as USA Today reported, a vast majority of the organizations behind disaster relief efforts are faith based.

That aside, the fact remains that this issue has already been decided.

Last year, Alliance Defending Freedom had the privilege of representing Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri before the Supreme Court.

At issue in this case was a reimbursement grant that was open to all nonprofits in the state wishing to resurface their playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran applied for the grant to create a safer environment for the children that attend its preschool, as well as the children in the community who play on the playground during non-school hours.

The state acknowledged that Trinity Lutheran was highly qualified for the grant, ranking it fifth out of 44 applicants based on the criteria. The state awarded 14 grants that year, but Trinity Lutheran was not among them. The reason? The preschool is operated by a church.

The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and in June 2017, the Court ruled 7-2 that religious people and organizations cannot be excluded from generally available public benefits simply because of their beliefs.

The same principle applies to FEMA aid: The government cannot treat people of faith as second-class citizens. And by excluding Texas churches from receiving grant funds that are generally available to other nonprofits, that’s exactly what FEMA was doing.

Thankfully, the government agency is taking steps to remedy this.

After all – as Trinity Lutheran confirmed – acting neutrally toward religion does not mean the government must treat people and organizations of faith worse than everyone else. It just means the government must treat them equally.

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