(Washington, DC) Congress passed a law today that protects churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that were long shut out of FEMA disaster aid programs. And the President signed the bipartisan bill into law shortly after it was passed. Congress’ action ensures that FEMA’s new policy will endure so that houses of worship are treated equally alongside secular nonprofit organizations applying for disaster aid.
For several decades, FEMA excluded houses of worship from its disaster aid programs. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues, represented by Becket, sued the government in separate lawsuits asking for equal access to disaster relief aid. One of those cases, Harvest Family Church v. FEMA, went to the Supreme Court, which asked FEMA to justify its exclusion policy. In response, FEMA ended its discrimination against churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship. Today’s action by Congress makes that new policy law.
“Congress has delivered a big victory for houses of worship everywhere,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the non-profit religious liberty law firm that represents the Texas churches and the Florida synagogues. “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.”
Houses of worship were among the first to respond in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and they continue to help their communities recover. The role of houses of worship in local communities rises above partisan divides—as shown by the bipartisan support for the independent legislation originally introduced to change FEMA’s former discriminatory policy. Efforts to end that policy have received broad support, including from the editorial boards of the LA Times and Chicago Tribune, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a Houston synagogue, and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. A vote on this issue in the U.S. House of Representatives five years ago received overwhelming bipartisan support, 354-72.
FEMA’s previous policy allowed many private nonprofit organizations, such as museums and zoos, to qualify for FEMA’s relief programs to clear debris and make basic structural repairs, but it denied houses of worship that same opportunity simply because they were religious. As a result of Becket’s lawsuits in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA and Chabad of Key West v. FEMA, houses of worship across the country have been able to seek disaster aid on an equal basis.
When FEMA announced its policy change in January, it noted that the new policy was required by the Supreme Court’s June 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, which ruled that the First Amendment requires religious groups to receive equal access to widely available public programs.