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Public Health Reports: Does the First Amendment Prevent or Allow FEMA to Provide Disaster Aid to Churches?

In a recent article in Public Health Reports, Dr. William Marshall of the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, considers legal arguments for and against Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) providing money to churches as part of its disaster relief program. Currently, FEMA prohibits disaster assistance if the nonprofit organization provides certain ineligible services, such as religious activities. At least 3 churches in the Houston, Texas, area, all damaged by Hurricane Harvey in September 2017, challenged this restriction on constitutional grounds, claiming that FEMA’s refusal to grant disaster assistance to churches violates their rights under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. In addition, there are indications that FEMA’s existing regulation may be abandoned to allow churches to receive disaster assistance. This action would likely trigger a constitutional challenge asserting that providing such aid would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Author suggests that there are indications that the Court would uphold FEMA providing disaster aid to churches as long as a grant program has a sufficiently wide class of recipients that includes both religious and nonreligious beneficiaries. The Court would likely contend that the purpose of the FEMA program is not building a church, but, rather, rebuilding communities and averting the dangers of physical harms and disease.

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