Faith-based organizations, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, provide an extraordinary amount of support during natural disasters. Greg Forrester—the president and CEO of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an association of relief groups—told USA Today that non-profits are responsible for 80 percent of recovery efforts, and most of those are faith-based. Religious groups that largely serve a secular purpose in their broader communities are eligible for funding. But those that spend more than half of their time and resources on worship, outreach, religious education, or internal fundraising aren’t eligible—a rule that effectively excludes all houses of worship.
“We’re just picking up the pieces like everyone else. And we just want to be treated like everyone else,” said Paul Capehart, the pastor of Harvest Family Church, through his lawyers. “Our faith is what drives us to help others. Faith certainly doesn’t keep us from helping others, and we’re not sure why it keeps FEMA from helping us.” While churches are leading the legal case, Jewish groups including the Orthodox Union are also lobbying for a policy change, according to The Jerusalem Post.
On Friday, President Trump tweeted his support for churches caught in disasters.
At least one FEMA official publicly cheered his pronouncement: “Amen!” replied Jamie Johnson, the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security, where he focuses on disaster relief.
The president’s tweet “was a very good development,” said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer who is representing the churches through Becket, an educational and legal institute focused on religious freedom. “All the churches are asking for is that when FEMA is making a determination, it’s no longer using religion as a criteria to keep parts of the community from asking for equal disaster relief.”
The timeline for FEMA funding is tight. The president has to declare an emergency or national disaster, and affected organizations generally have to request public assistance within 30 days. In their lawsuit, the three Texas churches requested expedited relief, arguing that they only have until that 30-day deadline—September 26—to win protection “against FEMA’s discrimination.”
Theoretically, the president could just direct FEMA to make all religious organizations eligible for funding under the public-assistance program. After all, FEMA is a federal agency under his authority. Similar things have happened in the past: In the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, the Bush administration agreed to reimburse religious organizations for the shelter, food, and supplies they provided to the general public.