GOP Senators Propose Bill Allowing Churches to Get FEMA Relief Money

In the wake of devastating hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz and three other Republican senators have introduced a bill that would make “houses of worship” eligible for government funds through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relief grants.

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The new legislation comes less than a month after three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey sued FEMA over their ineligibility, and after Trump himself tweeted that “churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey.”


FEMA currently doesn’t give money to religious organizations because it could cause a church-state separation issue, but these churches, Trump, and the Zodiac Killer’s doppelgänger are calling that discrimination.

The perpetually uncomfortable-looking Cruz said religious non-profit organizations, including churches and synagogues, “should not be excluded from federal disaster assistance just because they are faith-based.”

I wonder if he is including mosques in this category.

This policy is discriminatory and wrong. We must ensure that religious organizations are eligible for federal assistance on the same terms as other non-profits after being damaged or destroyed during natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. These religious institutions are central to our communities, provide vital services for our friends and neighbors, and are often the first to open their doors during a devastating crisis offering aid to those in need.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), one of the sponsors of the “Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act,” said houses of worship “provide vital support services during natural disasters, including food, comfort, shelter and much more.”

It is imperative that they have the resources they need to recover and rebuild. I urge my colleagues to support this bill, and help ensure houses of worship are able to continue serving local communities when they need it most.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) added that houses of worship are “no different” from other nonprofits that “often play a critical role in filling the gaps in assistance.”

“Equal treatment in FEMA grant programs for all nonprofits, including religious institutions, must be reached so these groups can continue to help communities in Texas and elsewhere recover.”

There’s no way federal funds can be funneled directly into churches (regardless of whether or not they assisted during a disaster) without it funding worship and thereby violating the Establishment Clause. And contrary to what Cornyn says, houses of worship are different from other nonprofits because they don’t have to report who’s funding them, for how much, and where that money is going.

If churches agreed to play by the same rules as other non-profits, we’d be having a different conversation.

***Update***: The Secular Coalition for America has condemned this bill:

“The government cannot compel taxpayers to support religious institutions,” said Larry T. Decker, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “True religious freedom is the right for all Americans to decide for themselves what houses of worship if any, they support with their money. This legislation violates this fundamental freedom, protected by the Establishment Clause, by using taxpayer money to literally build churches. Our hearts go out to all who were impacted by the recent hurricanes but religious freedom is a value that must be defended in the best and worst of times. This legislation, however well-intentioned, will rebuild houses of worship by knocking down the wall of separation between church and state.”

“It is frankly appalling to see the religious right and the lawmakers beholden to them using these recent tragedies as a pretense to advance their agenda,” said Decker. “As someone who spent nearly ten years working for the Red Cross, I’ve worked with faith organizations in the aftermath of natural disasters. Faith groups and houses of worship already have access to commodities and goods to aid in their sheltering and feeding operations. I support ensuring those commodities make it to places where people are being cared for but, it cannot be stressed enough, that this is not what this bill does. This legislation crosses a dangerous new line by putting the government in the business of building churches.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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