Advancing Religious Liberty
1/8/13 at 06:22 PM 0 Comments

Churches Should Not Be Discriminated Against for Disaster Relief

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Author: Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Joel Oster

A recent article in the New York Times stated that there were constitutional problems with FEMA providing grants to churches that were damaged or destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The article quoted the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State who both argued that churches should not be given grants because to do so would violate the “separation of church and state.” Once again, this tiresome phrase is being promoted to deny churches equal access to government grants. The article went on to tell the story of St. George Malankara Orthodox Church of India in New Dorp, Staten Island. This church suffered an estimated $150,000 in hurricane damage to its basement, windows and doors. When they asked for a grant to help with the rebuilding costs, they were given a clear “No.”

But the New York Times article did not tell the full story. And the ACLU and AU “experts” it quoted were dead wrong on the law. Churches cannot be discriminated against in the provision of disaster relief funding. Churches can, and should apply for FEMA grants.

FEMA provides grants to charitable organizations through its Public Assistance program. The purpose of this grant program is to allow communities to quickly respond to and recover from major disasters or emergencies declared by the president. Through these grants, FEMA has provided Federal disaster grant assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and the repair, replacement, or restoration of disaster -damaged facilities of private non-profit organizations. The program does not specifically exclude churches or other religious organizations.

So if a church is not categorically excluded, how does a church qualify? To qualify as a private non-profit organization, the organization must operate facilities that are open to the general public and provide services that are otherwise performed by a government agency. According to FEMA, this specifically includes such organizations as colleges, universities, parochial schools, hospitals, museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops and facilities that provide health and safety services.

As long as a church provides a service that is “otherwise performed by a government agency”, it should apply for a grant. Does the church offer education classes? Does it have a library open to the public? Then it should fill out a grant application if it has been damaged. Does it act as a community center where members of the community can come and use the facilities? Then it would be discriminatory for FEMA to deny the church a grant while giving grants to secular community centers.

The list goes on. Does the church house Alcoholics Anonymous, or other rehab programs? Does it offer programs for battered spouses? Provide transportation to medical facilities? Offer food programs or a clothing bank? Run an Upwards basketball program? The reality is that most churches are intimately involved in their communities, and provide such services that are also provided by the government. Thus, they should be eligible for FEMA grants and should apply.

The deadline for filing for a FEMA grant in New York is January 28, 2013. The deadline for New Jersey is January 30, 2013. You can fill out a grant request at this link: http://www.fema.gov/apply-assistance, or call the FEMA Helpline at 1-800-621-3362.

But if you face discrimination or opposition because you are a church or religious organization, contact us at Alliance Defending Freedom and we will assist you in defending your rights. The bottom line is that churches and other religious organizations cannot be prohibited from equally participating in a government program. Disaster relief is intended to allow our communities to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. And churches, as vital partners in those communities, should not be left behind in the wake.

This post originally appeared here.

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