The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced earlier this week it would reverse its previous policy and allow religious groups to apply for federal disaster aid.
According to the policy, “…private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment.”
Under a previous policy, the agency reserved disaster relief funds for nonprofit group without a religious affiliation.
The change reportedly comes as three Texas churches, the Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and the Rockport First Assembly of God, threatened to sue FEMA for allegedly denying them relief funds – an unconstitutional decision, according to their argument.
Rockport church officials said their church lost its steeple, its roof and a church van, while the other two churches reportedly sustained severe flooding.
Pastor Charles Stoker of the Hi-Way Tabernacle, whose church also served as a shelter during the hurricane and a distribution center after the storm, praised the decision:
“We’re delighted that FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups,” Stoker wrote in a press release. “And we look forward to continuing to help our neighbors as they recover from Harvey.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott also praised the policy change:
“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,” Abbott provided in a statement.
Several groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Anti-Defamation League and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, all of which are religious and secular, wrote a letter opposing the churches’ lawsuit on the basis of it violating the First Amendment’s principles of “separation of church and state.”
“Even in the most difficult times, we must adhere to the long-standing principles protected by the First Amendment,” the group letter reads.
This is a developing story.