Washington, DC—Yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it would change its longstanding policies to allow taxpayer-funded grants to rebuild churches and other houses of worship damaged in natural disasters. This policy change would allow, for the first time, federal funds earmarked for disaster relief to be used instead to build and furnish facilities used primarily for religious purposes.
“It is shameful that the Trump Administration would misapply federal law in order to justify giving disaster relief funding to religious organizations, rather than to people and communities,” said Alison Gill, legal and policy director of American Atheists. “This is a jaw-dropping abrogation of the government’s obligation to protect taxpayers from being forced to directly fund religious activities with their tax dollars. This illegal change in policy would, for the purpose of disaster relief, deem religious worship an essential government-type service.”
Churches and other houses of worship are already eligible under current FEMA policies to apply for government-subsidized loans to rebuild certain facilities. They can also be reimbursed for certain types of disaster-relief aid that they themselves might provide.
The policy change would affect a grant program that funds disaster relief for public facilities which provide essential government-type services. The program does not assist other nonprofits, including churches, with rebuilding.
Changing the rules would give churches special treatment and elevate them above other nonprofit organizations.
“FEMA should focus on providing relief to the individuals and local governments affected by natural disasters, not giving special handouts to churches and houses of worship to perform religious activities. That is a blatantly unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment,” Gill added.
American Atheists will continue to monitor the implementation of this policy change and will consider all remedies available to prevent taxpayer money going directly to houses of worship— without accountability or transparency—in order to further their religious activities.