Budget Includes Win for Religious Liberty: FEMA Aid Available to Faith-Based Institutions

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 may have some earmarks unpopular with fiscal conservatives, but the new law contains a victory for religious liberty in the United States.

One provision of the budget ends discrimination against churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and other houses of worship by banning them from receiving federal aid after a natural disaster through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) —  a policy put in place by the Barack Obama administration.

Banning religious institutions from receiving federal aid following a flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster also hampers such institutions from their mission of helping disaster victims generally.

Following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in August, First Liberty Institute, a legal group working to preserve religious liberty, represented Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy and Grace Community Church (“Clients”) in the Houston area, which were suffering from the devastating impact of the hurricane. First Liberty wrote a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to rescind the policy.

The letter said, in part:

These entities withstood displacement, human suffering, and millions of dollars in flood damage. And, like the neighborhoods and communities they serve, they need immediate aid and relief. However, under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide (“PA Policy Guide”), churches and other religious organizations, including our clients, are ineligible for disaster relief simply because they are churches. President Trump may be the only means by which churches and religious organizations in Texas and Florida obtain the disaster relief they so urgently need.

The PA Policy is not new, and has been re-issued under previous administrations, including two revisions under President Obama’s FEMA Assistant Administrator. But President Trump has publicly declared that churches and religious organizations should be entitled to disaster relief on equal terms as non-religious organizations. And with the stroke of a pen, the Trump Administration can make this a reality, providing much-needed disaster relief to hundreds of religious organizations—who themselves continue to provide relief to tens of thousands of affected citizens throughout Texas and Florida.

On behalf of our clients, First Liberty Institute requests the Trump administration immediately rescind the unconstitutional religious ban; specify that churches and religious nonprofit organizations, including our Clients, are eligible to apply for and receive Public Assistance on the same terms as their non-religious neighbors.

In January, Trump announced his administration would end the religious ban and allow religious entities to apply for FEMA relief, consistent with federal law, according to First Liberty.

“Today’s announcement by the White House allows our clients to continue to be the bedrocks of their hurricane-ravaged communities,” Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty, said of the decision.

“Thanks to the Trump administration, thousands of houses of worship are again eligible for FEMA relief just like everyone else and can start the process of rebuilding,” Youman said.

And now, the 2018 budget act makes the new FEMA policy law.

“It’s a great victory for equal protection and treatment of churches as valuable institutions as well as providers of critical services to the community in times of need,” Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council, said.

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