The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that it will allow houses of worship to apply for federal natural disaster assistance, a move that comes as three churches and two synagogues have filed lawsuits in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
In a public policy guide, the Trump administration clarified its position on a policy that had previously prevented houses of worship from applying for disaster assistance, stating that houses of worship will no longer be "singled out for disfavored treatment."
In its justification, the FEMA document cited last June's United States Supreme Court decision in favor of a Missouri church that sued the state government over a similar regulation preventing it from receiving funding for playground resurfacing.
"In light of the Trinity Lutheran decision, FEMA has considered its guidance on private nonprofit facility eligibility and determined that it will revise its interpretation of the aforementioned statutory and regulatory authorities so as not to exclude houses of worship from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the religious character or primarily religious use of the facility," the document reads.
The announcement comes just after President Donald Trump last September tweeted his wish to see churches and houses of worship made eligible for FEMA relief funding.
FEMA's decision was praised by religious freedom advocates and religious conservatives.
"Faith-based nonprofits and houses of worship have always played a critical role in helping Americans in need, especially after a natural disaster," Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, said in statement shared with The Christian Post.
"Just like charities, houses of worship that serve our communities and are impacted by natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, should not be disqualified from disaster assistance simply because they are religious in nature," he added. "I'm pleased that FEMA is taking this important step to include houses of worship into its list of eligible entities for aid."
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical religious freedom advocate and author who serves as an informal adviser to the Trump administration, called FEMA's policy change a "win for America."
"This is the latest, brilliant example of how the Trump administration is creating a culture of religious freedom across the government and no single department will be immune from it," Moore told CP in an email Tuesday night. "Administration officials are doing the hard work of rooting out policies which violate or give a lesser priority to religious freedom and replacing those policies with sensible, constitutional reforms."
After Hurricane Harvey struck and caused much flooding throughout Southeast Texas, three damaged churches in Texas sued in hopes they could receive much needed funding to help them get back on their feet. Last month, two synagogues damaged by Hurricane Irma in Florida filed similar complaints. Their cases are being handled by Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm.
"What a way to start 2018!" Pastor Charles Stoker of Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, Texas, said in a statement shared by Becket. "It's been a cold day, and this news will warm us all up here! We're delighted that FEMA will start treating us like other charitable groups. And we look forward to continuing to help our neighbors as they recover from Harvey."
Despite its sanctuary being almost nearly destroyed by severe flooding, the Hi-Way Tabernacle was active in providing help to those victimized by the hurricane. According to ABC News, as many as 80 to 90 evacuees were sheltered in the church's Sunday school classrooms in the aftermath of the storm.
Yet, the church is still in need of assistance to repair the damages.
"We need to get back on our feet, and we're unable to [without FEMA's help]," Stoker told ABC News.
Becket lawyer Daniel Blomberg said that FEMA's announcement indicates that the agency is "getting rid of second-class status for churches."
According to Becket, FEMA's policy change follows a request from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that the agency respond to the churches' requests.
Although religious liberty advocates are praising the ruling, liberal civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the effort to allow FEMA funding to go to churches.
"The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from granting public funds for the support of religious uses, including for the construction or repair of buildings used for religious worship," an amicus brief filed with the 5th Circuit Court of appeals by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations says, according to Politico.
"The grants sought by the plaintiffs here would support repairs to church sanctuaries and other core religious facilities, and are thus plainly proscribed by the Establishment Clause."
Becket explained that it is not yet certain how the new policy will impact the lawsuits. The case of the three churches is on appeal at both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the synagogues' case is pending in federal district court.
"We will watch carefully to make sure that FEMA's new policy is implemented to provide equal treatment for churches and synagogues alongside other charities," Blomberg assured.