FEMA extends assistance to houses of worship

Flooding in 2016 in Baton Rouge, La., may have damaged up to 110,000 homes. More than 100,000 people applied for disaster relief from FEMA. (Courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans)

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency will now extend assistance to houses of worship, reversing years of policy that excluded such aid.

“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the ‘community centers’ subcategory of … nonprofit applicants,” FEMA said in guidance for 2018 issued Tuesday.

Orthodox Jewish groups, which have been lobbying for legislation that would codify the inclusion of houses of worship for assistance, welcomed the change.

“We at the Orthodox Union have been working for more than 15 years to have this policy changed,” Nathan Diament, the O.U.’s Washington director, said in a statement. “We thank the Trump Administration for righting this long-time wrong and treating disaster-damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship fairly – on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers and libraries stricken by natural disasters.”

Agudath Israel of America said the change is consistent with White House backing for legislation advancing through Congress.

“Unfortunately, unnecessary and unfair limitations placed specifically on houses of worship by FEMA have presented formidable challenges, precluding such relief,” it said in a statement.

The U.S. House of Representatives last month approved a bill that allows federal disaster relief funds to go to houses of worship. The Senate is considering parallel legislation.

Under rules in place until the end of 2017, relief funds from FEMA could not go to churches, synagogues and other houses of worship due to concerns about separation of church and state. Other institutions, like community centers or zoos, received the funds. The money reimburses the institutions for aid they provide to victims of natural disasters.

The new rule allowing houses of worship to receive FEMA assistance, like the one it replaced excluding such assistance, is a matter of executive branch policy and not a congressional mandate. A future president could reverse the allowance, which is why Orthodox groups will still continue to lobby for the bills in Congress, Diament told JTA.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has long pushed for the change. In September, amid a string of hurricanes ravaging the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean, President Donald Trump tweeted his support for churches receiving FEMA funds.

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

Advancing the bill in the House were Reps. Peter King and Grace Meng, respectively a Republican and Democrat, both from New York, and Chris Smith, R-N.J. The regions they represent were hard hit by Tropical Storm Sandy in 2012.

Leading the Senate’s legislation are Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, respectively a Republican and Democrat from Missouri, James Lankford, R-Okla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas.