News

Texas officials urge Trump to act on FEMA funding for houses of worship

Pastor Jeffrey Willey kneels inside the Christ United Church, which was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, on Sept. 3, 2017, in Cypress, Texas. The church, which also flooded last year, had just recovered before Harvey caused more damage. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(RNS) — Texas officials have written to President Trump urging him to follow up on his tweeted endorsement of federal disaster relief for churches after Hurricane Harvey.

“Regrettably, due to a FEMA policy whose terms predate your administration, the same churches that are playing an instrumental role in the recovery effort cannot receive disaster relief funding to rebuild their own buildings,” wrote Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a Wednesday (Sept. 20) letter to the president.

In a Sept. 8 tweet, Trump said, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

Citing that statement, the Texas officials told him: “We couldn’t agree more, and we write to propose that your view is consistent with federal law and constitutional standards.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide lists among “ineligible services” provided by private nonprofits “religious activities” that include worship and religious instruction.

“Churches have opened their doors to feed, shelter, comfort, and rebuild their communities — even hosting FEMA operations in the process — but this policy has made those very same churches ineligible for assistance because their primary use is, by nature, religious,” Abbott and Paxton wrote. “That should change.”

They cited the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer as justification for a policy change in which the president could include houses of worship under the definition of eligible “private nonprofit facility.”

In June, the high court ruled 7-2 in favor of a Missouri church that claimed religious discrimination after it was refused state funds to improve its playground.

The Texas officials’ letter follows a Sept. 4 lawsuit filed by three churches in the state that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey. They are challenging the current FEMA policy, which “explicitly denies equal access to FEMA disaster relief grants for houses of worship solely because of their religious status,” according to the lawsuit.

“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” it states.

Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a blog post reacting to the suit that houses of worship are eligible for government loans to help them rebuild and for government reimbursement for services provided at the request of local officials, such as providing shelter due to a storm.

But her Washington, D.C.-based organization opposes changing FEMA’s current rules.

“Here’s the bottom line: The government is not in the business of building churches, synagogues and mosques — even after a terrible disaster,” she wrote. “That is at the core of the First Amendment, and we must stand by it in good times and in bad.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

15 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • “we write to propose that your view is consistent with federal law and constitutional standards.”

    Sorry, not constitutional to favor religion with secular tax payer monies. Churches do not pay taxes.

  • So, in effect, taxpayers should pay churches for their services – church relief efforts are money making activities?

  • Churches should receive government aid when they start paying taxes: as tax exempt organizations, they should not be eligible for federal funds.

  • No payments! Their denominations should help. If they don’t have any, then insurance. If no insurance, then members pay or disband. This is ABSURD. Just because Texas is run by Baptists we should help? Hands off FEMA money.

  • Many churches do open their doors to house and feed people as a matter of course.And some go and provide assistance whenever there is need. – nationally or internationally And Some fund-raise for this specific purpose.

    And as noted that when mobilized by officials, churches are entitled to FEMA reimbursement. When will government get their facts straight?

  • I have to agree that I’m not sure I could support taxpayer funding for building civilian places of worship. I understand the need for this is driven by small independent churches that don’t have the support of some higher headquarters, but for the most part church like the Catholics, Momons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so forth have access to internal funds. And I don’t think it would be a healthy precedent because soon enough we’d have taxpayer money building mosques and speghetti houses. People should build their own places of worship.

  • We can’t be spending taxpayer money fixing mosques, synagogues, druid worship facilities. We need to keep the government and churches completely separate, for the good of the churches and the government

  • Oh, NO. You don’t pay taxes, you don’t get federal funds. The playground in Trinity was considered secular, a church is most assuredly not secular.

  • Pouring much whine? You COULD learn from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and perhaps borrow a few $$. They are spending millions to build mosques in the western hemisphere, and this will lead to your doom. They WILL NOT ASSIMILATE. Now what?

  • I am amused that, with my limited knowledge, so many churches perform extremely expensive
    humanitarian service world wide and it is begrudged if they do not CORRECT TAX STATUS. How miserly.

  • It will take a year or so to rebuild and resettle. Hope you were not one of those looted especially those who left their homes to find them intact but with the innards gone.

ADVERTISEMENTs