The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that houses of worship will now be eligible to receive federal disaster relief funds, after outcry from religious leaders in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Previously, these FEMA funds were limited to private nonprofits that were not affiliated with a religion, such as museums, libraries, community centers, and homeless shelters.
“Effective for any major disaster declared on or after August 23, 2017, private nonprofit organizations operating a house of worship are now eligible under the FEMA Public Assistance Program,” the agency's administrator wrote to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Jan. 2.
Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday that FEMA had granted their request to permit houses of worship to gain access to these disaster relief funds.
Abbott and Paxton had sent President Donald Trump a letter in September arguing that houses of worship were no different than other nonprofits, and had even assisted FEMA with their recovery efforts. Yet due to past FEMA policy, these organizations were barred from funds.
Three Texas churches that were damaged during Hurricane Harvey had filed suit saying that they were being discriminated against for their religious beliefs as their requests for aid had been denied by FEMA.
Now, FEMA will permit houses of worship damaged during the hurricane to retroactively apply for aid, and any other church damaged in a storm in the future will also be eligible for these funds.
Abbott praised FEMA for changing this policy, and also thanked various religious organizations for playing a “vital role” in the area’s ongoing recovery since Harvey made landfall in late August.
"Churches and other houses of worship continue to play a vital role in the ongoing recovery effort, and their ability to receive the same assistance available to other nonprofits should never have been in doubt. I thank FEMA and the Administration for their commitment to helping Texans and the churches that have helped their communities throughout the recovery and rebuilding process,” said Abbott in a statement.
Catholic and Jewish leaders penned an opinion piece in USA Today in September encouraging legislation which would end discrimination against religious organizations in disaster aid.
Echoing Abbott’s praise was Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson, who said the Knights were grateful FEMA had agreed to assist churches, and that the damage caused by these particular storms had necessitated government help.
“Having stepped into the breach to help meet the great needs of the affected communities, we welcome the significance of FEMA’s decision.The destruction due to the flooding and hurricanes is of such a magnitude that the government must help in the response.”
The Knights of Columbus raised $3.8 million for disaster assistance in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 hurricane season. In addition to relief efforts in Texas, the Knights of Columbus donated $100,000 to the Archdiocese of San Juan to assist with rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.