Don’t bar disaster aid to churches

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    When Hurricane Harvey arrived in southeast Texas, it inflicted damage on a vast scale, upending the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Some of them ended up being sheltered and fed in churches that opened their doors to the victims. But now that the federal government is stepping up to offer help, there is none for the churches that need it.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers grants to help victims of disasters repair and rebuild. A share of the aid is designated for government bodies and nonprofit institutions such as child care facilities, assisted living centers, homeless shelters, libraries and museums.

    Under FEMA’s long-standing policy, though, this money is not available to churches and religious schools. If a zoo gets flooded, it can apply for relief. If a church is neck-deep in water, it’s on its own. Hurricane Harvey didn’t discriminate, but FEMA does.

    That policy doesn’t look long for this world. President Donald Trump tweeted recently, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).” He may order a change.

    FEMA is also being challenged in a lawsuit by three churches contending that the agency is violating the First Amendment by penalizing nonprofit entities that have a religious mission. “If the churches were to cease all religious activities in their houses of worship, those buildings would become assistance-eligible,” argues the complaint filed by Becket, a public interest legal organization that promotes religious liberty.

    “We’re just picking up the pieces like everyone else,” pastor Paul Capehart of Harvest Family Church in Cypress told The Atlantic. “And we just want to be treated like everyone else.” One of the churches involved in the case, Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, actually served as a staging center for federal and local relief efforts after Harvey.

    The obvious defense for the FEMA policy is that while the First Amendment protects religious freedom, it also forbids governments from subsidizing churches. By this reasoning, dispensing federal disaster relief money amounts to an establishment of religion.

    But the establishment clause was not meant to deny all government help to churches. They are entitled to police and fire protection, public water and sewage access, and other general services. By the same token, they should be eligible for broad-based assistance aimed at helping communities recover from natural disasters.

    On this point, the U.S. Supreme Court has made its inclination clear. Missouri had a state program that used recycled tires to resurface school playgrounds, both to save landfill space and to protect children. But religious entities were ineligible. When the state turned down an application from a church preschool, the church sued, and the Supreme Court ruled in its favor.

    “The rule is simple: No churches need apply,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “The state has pursued its preferred policy to the point of expressly denying a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character. Under our precedents, that goes too far.”

    The same reasoning applies to the FEMA exclusion. “What is critical in my view, and I think in the view of at least five justices, is that the program distributes money on neutral terms having nothing to do with religion,” University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock told us. “If a church falls within the natural boundaries of that program, the church should not be excluded because of religion.”

    The churches that were ravaged by the storm are not demanding special help. They are only asking to be considered on the same terms as a host of other nonprofits. Natural disasters inflict their harms on both the religious and the secular. Government rebuilding programs should be equally impartial.

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