(CN) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday it will now provide disaster aid to houses of worship, a policy shift spurred by lawsuits from three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues that were damaged by hurricanes.
After Hurricane Harvey ravaged southeast Texas in August three Texas churches sued FEMA on Sept. 4, claiming its ban on aid to faith-based organizations is unconstitutional.
Under FEMA’s former policies, disaster-relief grants could be awarded to schools, nursing homes and hospitals affiliated with religious groups, and church-run community centers, but only if less than 50 percent of their space was used for religious purposes.
The Texas churches complained in their Sept. 12 first amended lawsuit that FEMA’s expansive list of nonprofit community centers that were eligible for disaster-relief funds included performing arts centers and groups focused on “car care, ceramics, gardening . . . sewing, stamp and coin collecting,” while churches that provided shelter to people displaced by disasters were excluded.
But FEMA announced Tuesday it has done away with its house of worship-exclusion policy.
“Private nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster assistance as community centers, without regard to their secular or religious nature,” the agency said in a statement.
FEMA said that storm-damaged churches must apply for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, and it will give them disaster-relief funds if the SBA denies them a loan, or if the loan amount won’t cover their damage.
Hi-Way Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church in Cleveland, Texas, 55 miles northeast of Houston, is the lead plaintiff in the Texas lawsuit.
It housed 70 people displaced by Hurricane Harvey even though it suffered flood damage from the hurricane.
It also served as a staging center for FEMA, which distributed more than 8,000 emergency meals from the church, according to its attorneys with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.
Becket attorney Daniel Blomberg argued in a Nov. 7 hearing in Houston federal court that FEMA’s former policy was akin to a Missouri benefits program that excluded churches from applying for aid to resurface their playgrounds.
According to the FEMA's 217-page Public Assistance Program and Policy guide informally released Tuesday, the policy shift was made because of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.
The 7-2 opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts and issued June 26 found that the state of Missouri can't withhold public funds to a church solely on the basis of its status as a house of worship. The issue found its way to the Supreme Court after the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had denied Trinity Lutheran a grant that was otherwise available to secular schools to resurface its playground.
But in a Dec. 7 order denying the Texas churches’ request for an injunction, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller wrote that the Missouri case is different because it involved the “funding of a playground, not a religious activity,” while the churches were demanding FEMA funds to repair sanctuaries mainly used for religious services.