Today, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long, demanding answers regarding FEMA's decision to deny disaster relief funding to three churches seeking to rebuild their communities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

"This policy discriminates against people of faith," wrote Sasse. "It sends the message that communities of worship aren’t welcome to participate fully in public life.... It reduces the facilities and volunteer time, talent, and effort available to support the broader community. And it is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s recent 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer.... In other words, it is unjust. It is unconstitutional. It is unreasonable. And it is impeding ongoing recovery efforts."

Full text of the letter can be found below:

September 08, 2017

Dear Administrator Long, 

All across the country, Americans have been closely watching rescue and restoration efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, amazed at the uncomplaining resilience of Texans. While our hearts break for the families who have lost lives and homes, they also swell with pride in the volunteers, neighbors, and first responders who sprang to action. That’s what America is about, and that’s why it is particularly disturbing to hear reports that FEMA has denied three churches disaster funds to help rebuild their communities.

As Congress works to mobilize resources for those affected by this disaster, one of our duties is to exercise our oversight authority to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and effectively. In the wake of Harvey’s devastation and in anticipation of future times of need—especially in light of the potential for catastrophic damage from Hurricane Irma—there is no room for discriminatory policies that hinder the tasks of recovery and rebuilding. That is why I am disturbed to learn of FEMA’s refusal to allow religious Americans equal access to disaster aid.

When disasters strike, it’s our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations that spring into action, offering crucial facilities, manpower, and numerous other forms of support to affected communities. For the victims of a disaster such as Harvey, so many of whom have lost their home or—worse yet—their loved ones, it’s these institutions that provide the helping hands to rebuild suddenly shattered lives. 

Nevertheless, religious organizations are not themselves immune from the devastating effects of disasters. Indeed, some of the most inspiring stories we’ve heard in recent days involve communities of worship going the extra mile to help their neighbors even as they themselves have suffered catastrophic damage. But even as these communities inspire the nation by facing even the most difficult circumstances with a servant’s heart, FEMA categorically excludes institutions that use their facilities primarily for religious purposes from receiving recovery aid grants available to otherwise similarly situated non-profit organizations.[1] When facilities for stamp and coin collecting are eligible for aid,[2] but houses of worship aren’t, something has gone seriously wrong.

What are the consequences of this policy?

Obviously, this policy discriminates against people of faith. It sends the message that communities of worship aren’t welcome to participate fully in public life. It incentivizes these groups to focus their resources on the damage their own facilities sustained. It reduces the facilities and volunteer time, talent, and effort available to support the broader community. And it is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s recent 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which the Court held that the exclusion of a religious organization “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution . . . and cannot stand.”[3]

In other words, it is unjust. It is unconstitutional. It is unreasonable. And it is impeding ongoing recovery efforts.

In light of this troubling policy, please provide answers to the following questions:

  1. How long has FEMA maintained a policy[4] that religious organizations are ineligible for disaster recovery aid? Please provide a copy of every policy on religious organizations’ eligibility since the enactment of the Stafford Act.[5] 
     
  2. In the months since the Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran, has FEMA taken any steps to reexamine this policy to ensure its compliance with the Court’s holding?
     
  3. Will you commit to using any and all expedited authorities at your disposal to suspend or limit the application of the policy to ongoing recovery efforts?
     
  4. Will you commit to a full revision of the policy to correct the legal, moral, and practical problems with the policy identified above?

In light of the need for expedited action, please respond in writing in the next 30 days. If you have any questions, please contact my staff at (202) 224-4224. I look forward to your prompt response.

                Sincerely,

                Ben Sasse
                United States Senator



[1] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, FP 104-009-2 at 12 (April 2017).

[2] Id. at 14. 

[3] Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, No. 15–577, slip op. at 15 (U.S. June 26, 2017).

[4] “Policy” here refers to the requirement that “[f]acilities established or primarily used for . . . religious . . . activities are not eligible” for financial assistance under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program. Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, supra note 1, at 12.

[5] Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, Pub. L. No. 100-707, 102 Stat. 4689 (1988).