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In a shift, Trump administration says houses of worship can apply for FEMA funding for Hurricane Harvey relief

A flooded church is pictured after Hurricane Matthew in Lumberton, N.C., on Oct. 11, 2016. (Reuters)

This story, originally published Jan. 4, has been updated.

Houses of worship damaged during natural disasters will be able to rebuild using federal funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Trump administration has announced, a shift traditional faith groups have been requesting from presidents for decades without success.

FEMA will accept disaster aid applications from houses of worship — along with other damaged non-profits — until Feb. 4. the agency announced this week.

FEMA’s new funding rules were released in an update to the policy guide for the agency. Similar rules are in a House measure that passed late last year and in a pending Senate bill. They are being challenged by church-state advocacy groups that say they violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on the government “establishing” religion.

The issue is also pending in federal courts because of lawsuits against FEMA by three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues hit last year by hurricanes that were denied FEMA funding. Lawyers for those houses of worship are waiting to make sure funding comes through, the San Antonio Express-News reported Wednesday.

“We thank the Trump administration for righting this longtime wrong and treating disaster-damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship fairly — on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers and libraries stricken by natural disaster,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, a major U.S. Orthodox Jewish organization.

The debate about FEMA funding doesn’t affect a huge number of institutions, since FEMA designation only happens after rare major disasters such as the trio of hurricanes that hit the United States last year — Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. For example, Diament said after Harvey four or five synagogues and a few dozen churches sought such aid, while in Florida there was less damage to such spots.

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However, it’s a symbolically important issue to some faith groups, particularly in the last decade as religious conservatives have seen their standing challenged by growing liberal and secular forces.

Historically, Diament said, the issue was bipartisan. It’s unclear what will happen going forward if the issue gains public attention, but at the moment a mix of lawmakers is supporting the measure to directly fund houses of worship, including Republican Reps. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.) and Peter T. King (N.Y.) and Democratic Rep. Grace Meng (N.Y.). In the Senate it has backing from Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, both of Missouri.

Faith groups advocating for the change include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Agudath Israel of America (which represents Orthodox Jews), the Southern Baptist Convention and the Jewish Federations of North America.

The debate about whether FEMA can pay to rebuild churches and other places of worship increased in the early 2000s. Federal disaster assistance had been increasing as the agency grew, prompting debates about who got what. In 2002 the Bush administration changed the practice regarding certain types of funding to religious groups — granting $550,000 to the Seattle Hebrew Academy, a private school devastated by an earthquake.

The issue came to the fore again with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when religious organizations — not just houses of worship but major nonprofit agencies and institutions — suffered millions in property damage. The Bush administration said it would help rebuild parochial schools, nursing homes and similar religious institutions but would not pay for the rebuilding of houses of worship.

“I just want to make it clear that any facility that’s used primarily for inherently religious activities is not going to be covered,” H. James Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was quoted as saying in a 2005 article in The Washington Post.

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President George W. Bush established the network of “faith-based” offices across the federal government to help government work with faith-based nonprofits. President Barack Obama continued them, but Trump has not filled most of the key positions in the network, though he’s not formally killed it.

Some faith groups praised the Bush administration for recognizing the public service faith groups provide and simply not discriminating, while separationist groups said institutions like religious schools were primarily serving a religious purpose and shouldn’t get government funds.

Diament said while Bush refused to change the policy explicitly, his staff “found ways to get many — not all — churches FEMA funds.” The rules were applied “flexibly” he said, with the government focusing on the parts of houses of worship that could be characterized as “not exclusively religious” — like community halls that serve the homeless, for example.

The federal law behind these various FEMA policies is called the Stafford Act of 1988. Diament said it is silent about the issue of religion altogether. It includes a section about private nonprofits that can get post-disaster funds. It has a list that isn’t comprehensive, but more “illustrative,” Diament said — it just lists the type of groups, and includes community centers, museums and art centers.

The issue came up again after Hurricane Sandy, but the Obama administration was less flexible than the Bush White House, Diament said.

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Houses of worship aren’t the only buildings denied FEMA funding by White House policies. The guidelines issued this week use preexisting language, which deems ineligible “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, recreational, vocational or academic training, conferences.”

“I won’t pretend the system of inclusion or exclusion has logic to it,” Diament said of the Stafford Act.

Dena Sher, assistant legislative director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said until this week the FEMA guidelines treated religious and nonreligious nonprofits equally, and determined eligibility based on what activities take place. “Now this gives houses of worship special treatment,” she said.

“It’s troubling. We know communities need support as they rebuild and we can’t ignore fundamental principles of religious freedom. But the constitutional principle at stake says each of us gets to decide how and if to support any religion. That’s the promise the constitution makes and we should hold to it in good times and bad.”