New budget bill affirms church access to FEMA disaster relief fund

(Reuters/Mike Blake)A chalkboard pointing to a FEMA office is shown in the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas.

The new budget bill that was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday included a provision that would ensure that churches and other houses of worship will be able to access disaster relief funds.

According to The Christian Post, the two-year budget agreement includes language that solidifies in law the eligibility of churches and other houses of worship that have sustained damaged during natural disasters to receive repair funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The legislation that ended up in the budget bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who contended that the role of houses of worship in disaster relief efforts has demonstrated the disparate treatment they received in terms of eligibility for aid.

"Recent natural disasters have shown how critical houses of worship are in providing essential, and at times life-saving, services when communities need them the most," Blunt said.

"Putting houses of worship on an equal footing with other nonprofits will help ensure they have the resources they need to rebuild after a disaster and continue serving their communities," he added.

The provision in the budget bill has been hailed by nonprofit religious liberty law firm Becket, which represented Florida synagogues and Texas churches last year in challenging the FEMA policy.

"Congress has delivered a big victory for houses of worship everywhere," said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket.

"It was always strange to tell houses of worship that there is no room at the inn, when they are the first to help in time of need. Congress has now put this troubling history of discrimination behind us," she added.

Becket has noted that houses of worship had been some of the first groups to help storm victims after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and they continue to reach out to those in need.

Last month, FEMA decided to reverse its policy that barred churches from receiving relief funds, citing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June favor of a Missouri church that challenged a state law prohibiting it from receiving funding that is made available to non-secular institutions for playground resurfacing.

In addition, the Supreme Court had instructed FEMA last year to justify its exclusion policy when it heard the case of Harvest Family Church vs. FEMA.

The high court reportedly ruled that excluding religious organizations from disaster relief violated the First Amendment, prompting the agency to issue the rule change. The provision in the budget agreement provided a legal backbone to the new FEMA policy.

Previous attempts have been made to allow houses of worship to receive disaster relief funds. In 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 352-72 in favor of a measure that would have made houses of worship eligible for FEMA aid.

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