The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) just issued a disastrous directive to provide disaster relief to houses of worship. The move comes in the wake of pressure by President Trump and litigation by churches and synagogues in Texas and Florida.
FEMA announced Tuesday it will now categorize churches as "community centers" that provide "essential government-type services to the general public." This will allow FEMA to provide grants directly to churches affected by recent hurricanes. FEMA already allows churches to receive reimbursements for secular services provided in the wake of natural disasters, but FEMA's new policy would go much further by forcing taxpayers to finance the actual repair of churches.
FEMA supposedly based this change on the Supreme Court's Trinity Lutheran decision last year, which struck down a ban on funds to resurface a playground on the sole basis that the playground was owned by a church. However, this reliance is deeply misguided.
Specifically, FEMA stated that it would no longer "exclude houses of worship from eligibility for FEMA aid on the basis of the . . . primarily religious use of the facility." This flies in the face of the Trinity Lutheran decision, which was based on the secular nature of the "facility," in that case a playground. Funding the repair of churches is a religious use of funds, which Trinity Lutheran explicitly differentiated from the secular use of resurfacing a playground. The only court to consider this issue already reached the same conclusion.
In fact, FEMA's previous policy already allowed funding to church-owned secular buildings, as required by Trinity Lutheran.
"The new policy is nothing more than an opportunistic attempt to siphon funds from taxpayers to churches," charges FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FEMA's action is an affront to the American foundational principle that citizens may not be taxed to attend, erect or support churches.