September 11, 2017
When Hurricane Harvey ripped through Texas, most people never dreamed it was the beginning of a bigger storm over religious freedom. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened when three Houston churches applied for FEMA funding -- only to be denied for being "too religious." Thanks to a 20-year-old policy guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, any institution that spends more than half of its space on "religious programming" isn't eligible for aid. That's ridiculous, argues the churches' attorneys at the Becket Fund, especially since two of these congregations sheltered victims and distributed more than 8,000 meals to the community. "The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking equal treatment. And they need to know now whether they have any hope of counting on FEMA or whether they will continue to be excluded entirely from these FEMA programs."
That hope came Friday in the form of a tweet from President Donald Trump. "Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)," he insisted. It was the latest sign that this White House is committed to cleaning up the mess -- not just from the hurricane, but from Obama's two terms of religious hostility. Trump's position ought to go a long way to righting this 1998 wrong, especially now that Congress is piling on. In a letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long, Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebr.) calls out the injustice.
"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 reduces the facilities and volunteers 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... In other words, it is unconstitutional. It is unreasonable. And it is impeding ongoing recovery efforts."
"When disasters strike," he pointed out, "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." And, as USA Today explains, that isn't one conservative's opinion. It's a fact. "Faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA," reads the headline. Crediting the churches' "unique expertise" in disaster relief, they explains what "integral partners" these institutions have been in helping the hurting, applauding the sophistication of these groups -- especially Samaritan's Purse -- in getting volunteers, food, clothes, and money quickly to the victims who need it. By USA Today's count, at least 75 percent of the volunteer army is faith-based – making FEMA's policy all the more outrageous. I can personally attest to how churches are increasingly on the front lines of relief in these natural disasters.
Why would the government turn away humanitarian assistance from one of the biggest pools of support? Could it be that Big Government doesn't like competition? In Louisiana, we saw something very similar with Hurricane Katrina. Instead of partnering with local churches, FEMA kept faith-based groups at arm's length, leaving a less effective and more expensive government to fill the void. Yet churches kept on, reacting spontaneously to the needs they saw around them.
That's because, to Christians, this isn't about what they're "getting" from government. As Houston's Pastor Charles Storker said, "The Hi-Way Tabernacle is here to help people. If our own government can help us do that, that'd be great. And if not, we're going to keep doing it. But I think that it's wrong that our government treats us unfairly just because we're Christians." Now, with the American Red Cross under fire for mismanaging money, ("They are the most inept unorganized organization I've ever experienced," said one Houston councilmen), it seems even more urgent that the government fund proven outreach partners.
Not surprisingly, the militant secularists at the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State don't see it that way. "We know a lot of people in Texas are suffering," Barry Lynn's office told reporters, "and we are sympathetic. But the fact that something bad has happened does not justify a second wrong. Taxpayers should not be forced to protect religious institutions that they don't subscribe to." In the year of rebuilding from Baton Rouge's flood, I haven't seen anyone under the banner of atheism offering to help. . Instead, atheists like to snipe at the groups that are actually on the ground with chainsaws and food pantries like Franklin Graham and others.
It all proves author Arthur Brooks's point: "Religious people are far more charitable than nonreligious people. In years of research, I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people." (A point Baylor researchers emphasized in their study about faith-based organizations and the homeless.) In his book, Who Really Cares?, he details how religious people are more charitable "in every measurable nonreligious way -- including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty -- than secularists." And that charity isn't just good for the victims -- it's good for America.
"Money giving and prosperity exist in positive feedback to each other," Brooks explains, "a virtuous cycle, you might say. For example, in 2000, controlling education, age, race, and all the other outside explanations for giving and income increases, a dollar donated to charity was associated with $4.35 in extra income. Of this extra income, $3.75 was due to the dollar given to charity. At the same time, each extra dollar in income stimulated 14 cents in new giving. All told, this is evidence that charity has an excellent return on investment, far better than the return from the vast majority of stocks and bonds."
That generosity has a multiplying effect. So, before liberals or atheists complain about helping faith-based groups do their job, let's remember that there's plenty of incentive to help them -- and absolutely no constitutional grounds not to.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.