How A Playground Made It Possible For Churches To Qualify For Federal Disaster Relief Funds

By Victor Ochieng

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been applying a policy that bars nonprofits such as churches from receiving emergency funds in the wake of natural disasters. The policy states that facilities used for religious activities, such as “worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large” don’t qualify for federal relief funds.

Even in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, churches were denied FEMA funds. This is what promoted three Texas churches and two Jewish synagogues in Florida to file lawsuits protesting their exclusion from the list of the funds’ beneficiaries.

Despite such lawsuits coming their way, FEMA remained adamant.

But things have since taken a new turn. FEMA recently decided to change the rules in response to a 2017 Supreme Court decision in a religious liberty case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer.

Last week, FEMA issued a statement in which they announced their revision of their Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, which read in part: “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 decision will be made retroactive and will in essence cover damages incurred from as early as August 23, 2017, which means the churches that suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey will also benefit.

But how did this come about?

It was inspired by the development of a controversy that involved a religious preschool that made its playground using car tires. The school, which is sanctioned by The Trinity Lutheran, was denied funds in a state reimbursement program that targeted schools that made their playgrounds using rubberized material. The reason why the school was disqualified was because of its link to the church.

In a June 2017 ruling, however, the Supreme Court declared that the state’s policy infringed on the rights of Trinity Lutheran under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the preschool an available public benefit on account of nothing else but religious status. The court declared that the policy discriminated against organizations that would otherwise be qualified recipients.

Many religious liberty campaigners have argued that FEMA is using the same discriminative policy to deny benefits to religious organizations. In their lawsuits, the churches said, “The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake.”

The irony in the policy is that FEMA has been denying religious outfits funds, yet they normally use churches to set up relief centers during disasters.