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Governor, Attorney General push for FEMA disaster assistance for churches

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FEMA's Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide does not offer assistance for religious organizations, but the President has the authority to change that. FEMA's Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide does not offer assistance for religious organizations, but the President has the authority to change that.
Many churches damaged by Harvey in Rockport will need to spend millions of dollars to rebuild. Many churches damaged by Harvey in Rockport will need to spend millions of dollars to rebuild.
While they work to recover their own losses, churches are also providing supplies and hot meals to storm victims and workers in the community. While they work to recover their own losses, churches are also providing supplies and hot meals to storm victims and workers in the community.
CORPUS CHRISTI -

Houses of worship could get FEMA disaster assistance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, if President Trump takes into account a suggestion by Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The Governor and Attorney General sent President Trump a letter urging him to ensure that churches and other religious organizations are treated equally with other nonprofits and are not excluded from FEMA disaster funding for storm victims. 

Currently, FEMA's Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide, which was revised under the Obama administration, offers assistance to private non-profit organizations such as zoos, museums and performing arts centers. However it excludes facilities established primarily for religious activities. 

Countess Rockport churches hit by Harvey are now scenes of devastation. 

"It got a lot, a lot of water damage. So I would think they need to tear a lot of it down," said Belinda Gonzalez, a volunteer at Salt Lake Baptist Church. 

"The building kind of imploded," Senior Pastor Scott Jones said about his church, First Baptist Chruch of Rockport. 

Normally, their doors are always open to those in need.

leah oliva, assistant, st. peter catholic church: "Whenever they need spiritual guidance, they come here," Lea Oliva said about St. Peter Catholic church. 

However, after Hurricane Harvey, many places of worship are now closed. 

"We are total loss right now," said St. Peter's Father Josn Tran Ngyuen.

They face massive, and costly, renovations.

"The insurance estimate we've gotten is about $1.2 million," Pastor Jones said. 

However, these churches and other religious organizations are not eligble for disaster assistance money from FEMA.

"I understand the rule because of the separation of church and state, and the fact that we don't pay federal taxes," Pastor Jones said. 

Now Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton are hoping to change that rule. In their letter to President Trump, they write: 

"Churches have opened their doors to feed, shelter, comfort, and rebuild their communities - even hosting FEMA operations in the process - but this policy has made those very same churches ineligible for assistance because their primary use is, by nature, religious."

The Governor and Attorney General also highlight a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which protects the right of religious organizations to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations. 

"Excluding churches and houses of worship from FEMA disaster relief not only makes for bad policy, as you acknowledge, but also risks the federal government violating the constitutional rights of those who are playing an instrumental role in getting Texans back on their feet after Hurricane Harvey," they write. 

Even as they are working to recover their own losses, many churches are also giving out supplies and hot meals to storm victims in the community.

"We've always got food!" Gonzalez told dozens of workers and storm victims stopping by Salt Lake Baptist Church for lunch. 

Some, like Gonzalez, support FEMA funding for churches crippled by storm damage.

"I don't think it's fair," she said. "If they provide it to museums and other facilities, I think churches have got to be included in there. In a disaster, they should distribute it equally between businesses, churches, and residents."

Others are more concerned about money going directly to storm victims. 

"We worry about our parishioners who also lost everything," Father Ngyuen said. 

Pastor Jones adds that even if the policy changes, First Baptist will fund their reconstruction another way. 

"I do appreciate the concern for the churches that might not have the resources to repair their damaged buildings," he said. "Personally, we would not be interested in receiving any FEMA money."

Under federal law, president Trump has the authority to include churches and other houses of worship in FEMA's definition of a "private nonprofit facility." The president recently said that churches assisting hurricane victims in Texas should be entitled to FEMA funds. 

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