Faith groups have been pushing for the change for decades
The Trump administration announced this week that houses of worship would now be able to use federal funds to rebuild after natural disasters. The policy marks a shift from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines which prohibit the expenditure of federal money on churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is among other faith groups, including Agudath Israel of America, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Jewish Federations of North America, which have been pressing for the change, reported the Washington Post.
“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,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, a major U.S. Orthodox Jewish organization said, according to the report in the Washington Post.
The new rules were part of an update of a 217-page FEMA guide that notes “private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment.” The rule will be applied retroactively (to claims since August 23, 2017) to cover damage incurred by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma FEMA said.
The new FEMA rules concerning the expenditure of disaster relief funding are similar to rules passed in the House late last year, and in a pending Senate bill.
The federal policy which denied funding to houses of worship was based on the Stafford Act of 1988 which included a list of non-profit organizations eligible for federal disaster relief funding. While the list included community centers, museums and art centers, it did not include churches, synagogues or other houses of worship.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the administration of President George W. Bush denied funding to houses of worship, but helped religiously-affiliated schools, hospitals and nursing homes get funding.
At the time, 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, saying that the Bush administration’s was steering clear of funding reconstruction efforts for 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,” Towey said.