FEMA rethinking ban on disaster aid to church buildings

When disaster strikes, houses of worship are often on the front lines, feeding and sheltering victims. Yet churches, synagogues and mosques are routinely denied aid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it comes time to repair or rebuild their damaged sanctuaries.

Pressure is mounting to change that after this year’s series of devastating hurricanes damaged scores of churches in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

FEMA is rethinking its policies in the face of a federal lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing Tuesday, by three Texas churches hit by Hurricane Harvey. President Donald Trump has signaled his support, via Twitter, for the religious institutions.

At the same time, several members of Congress have revived legislation — first proposed after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy — that would force FEMA to pay for repairs at places of worship.

The debate centers on two key questions: Does providing such aid violate the First Amendment separation of church and state? Or is it an infringement on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion to deny churches the same aid available to numerous other nonprofit organizations, such as libraries, zoos and homeless shelters?

“It seems like the only reason churches are excluded is because they’re churches, and it just seems discriminatory to me,” said Bruce Frazier, pastor of Rockport First Assembly of God Church, which is part of the lawsuit.

Religious entities already can receive some government help in disasters. They can be reimbursed by local governments for sheltering evacuees and can receive U.S. Small Business Administration loans to repair their buildings. FEMA grants are available to religiously affiliated schools, health care providers and nursing homes. And FEMA also can provide money to repair church-run facilities that function like community centers, but only if less than half the space or use is for religious purposes.

Over the past five years, FEMA has authorized a net of $113 million for about 500 religiously affiliated entities such as schools, medical clinics and community centers after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other disasters, according to an AP analysis of data made public as part of the lawsuit.

But FEMA hasn’t supplied money to repair sanctuaries, and its 50 percent rule excludes many other types of church facilities.