A Real Rebuild

by Aaron Matthew Weldon

September 27, 2017

In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed both heartbreaking loss and heroic virtue, as hurricanes have pounded Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.  We mourn lives lost and lament communities wrecked, yet we are inspired by the way people pull together to serve their neighbors.  We look to these servants as beacons of hope as we begin the process of rebuilding.

Everyone wants to see disaster-stricken cities rebuilt.  But it may come as a surprise to many of us that some of the most important institutions in hurricane-ravaged communities are not eligible to receive grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA maintains a policy of excluding houses of worship from federal disaster relief grants simply because these institutions are primarily used for religious purposes.  So while community centers, zoos, and museums receive federal funds to help rebuild, churches, synagogues, and mosques are left in a lurch.

There is something a bit silly about this policy when we consider the role that houses of worship play after a disaster.  These places serve the public, sheltering people whose homes have been damaged, even serving as staging grounds for FEMA operations.  That's right.  FEMA uses houses of worship to carry out its work, while retaining a policy of not helping those very institutions rebuild themselves.  And no federal law requires such an unjust policy.

Houses of worship play a vital role in the life a community.  The federal government can more effectively help the people in places like San Juan, Houston, and Miami put their lives back together by taking account of the importance of faith.  A rebuild that does not account for the spiritual needs of the people is not a rebuild.  The Catholic Church's Declaration on Religious Liberty recognizes that a well-functioning government will not neglect the spiritual aspect of its citizens: "Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare" (Dignitatis humanae, 3).

This is not a matter of showing favor to a particular religious group.  Indeed, the effort to seek a change in FEMA policy is multi-faith.  Catholic bishops are working with Jewish rabbis and other people of faith to seek a change to this unjust policy.  Religious leaders are not asking for special treatment, just fair treatment.  The disaster relief grants that are made available to other public-serving nonprofit organizations should be available to houses of worship on equal terms.

Over the coming weeks and months, many Americans will donate money to groups involved in relief efforts.  As people of faith, we Catholics will certainly continue to pray for the victims of the recent hurricanes and for the rebuilding efforts.  Some of us may even take service trips.  Let us consider also taking advantage of our right to tell our Representatives and Senators that we want to see a change.  The Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017 has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.  This piece of legislation would ensure that houses of worship are eligible to receive disaster relief grants from FEMA.  Urge Congress to support this important piece of legislation today!

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

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