FEMA to Reimburse Church Groups for Hurricane Aid

FEMA will, for the first time, reimburse churches along with other groups that provided relief services to hurricane victims.

FEMA Plans to Reimburse Faith Groups for Aid (WaPo, A1)

After weeks of prodding by Republican lawmakers and the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that it will use taxpayer money to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that have opened their doors to provide shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA officials said it would mark the first time that the government has made large-scale payments to religious groups for helping to cope with a domestic natural disaster.

“I believe it’s appropriate for the federal government to assist the faith community because of the scale and scope of the effort and how long it’s lasting,” said Joe Becker, senior vice president for preparedness and response with the Red Cross.

Civil liberties groups called the decision a violation of the traditional boundary between church and state, accusing FEMA of trying to restore its battered reputation by playing to religious conservatives. “What really frosts me about all this is, here is an administration that didn’t do its job and now is trying to dig itself out by making right-wing groups happy,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

FEMA officials said religious organizations would be eligible for payments only if they operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities at the request of state or local governments in the three states that have declared emergencies — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In those cases, “a wide range of costs would be available for reimbursement, including labor costs incurred in excess of normal operations, rent for the facility and delivery of essential needs like food and water,” FEMA spokesman Eugene Kinerney said in an e-mail.

For churches, synagogues and mosques that have taken in hurricane survivors, FEMA’s decision presents a quandary. Some said they were eager to get the money and had begun tallying their costs, from electric bills to worn carpets. Others said they probably would not apply for the funds, fearing donations would dry up if the public came to believe they were receiving government handouts. “Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer,” said the Rev. Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. “We would never ask the government to pay for it.”

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, religious charities rushed in to provide emergency services, often acting more quickly and efficiently than the government. Relief workers in the stricken states estimate that 500,000 people have taken refuge in facilities run by religious groups.


For some individual churches, however, reimbursement is very appealing. At Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., as many as 200 evacuees and volunteer workers have been sleeping each night in the sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms. The church’s entrance hall is a Red Cross reception area and medical clinic. As many as 400 people a day are eating in the fellowship hall.

Suzie Harvey, the parish administrator, said the church was asked by the Red Cross and local officials to serve as a shelter. The church’s leadership agreed immediately, without anticipating that nearly a quarter of its 650 members would be rendered homeless and in no position to contribute funds. “This was just something we had to do,” she said. “Later we realized we have no income coming in.”

Harvey said the electric bill has skyrocketed, water is being used round-the-clock and there has been “20 years of wear on the carpet in one month.” When FEMA makes money available, she said, the church definitely will apply.

While I have some misgivings about this, there hardly seems to be a government entanglement in religious matters involved here. The Supreme Court has long ruled that church groups must be treated on par with other groups. If Habitat for Humanity gets a tax break or government subsidy, then the Salvation Army must get the same treatment if it is engaged in the same activity.

Lynn is the media’s go-to guy for these kind of stories. Because he has “Rev.” in front of his name, the casual reader gets the impression “even mainstream preachers oppose this policy.” In fact, Lynn’s entire career is opposition to even nominal intermingling of faith and public life.

I am somewhat uneasy about this policy, not on religious separation grounds, but on general public policy ones. Is this a one-shot deal, or can charity groups now perform services and demand taxpayer reimbursement? And if they’re getting tax-exempt status for the donations that come in, only to get reimbursed by the taxpayer, aren’t they essentially double dipping? By the same, those who donate to these groups and then get a tax write-off for it are essentially being subsidized in their pursuits by taxpayers who chose not to donate to those particular charities. Note, though, that these concerns apply whether we’re talking about the Red Cross, the local soup kitchen, or the Knights of Columbus.

FILED UNDER: Natural Disasters, Religion, Supreme Court, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    So, is it charity if the feds reimburse you?

    Snark aside, so long as they’re really compensating just for shelter-related expenses, etc., just as they would with comparable private entities, then I think this is perfectly reasonable.

  2. LJ says:

    Once again….

    It makes no sense.

    Any church that applies for this is defeating the basic principle of charity.

    I hope all the greedy reverends and the people that follow them get thier due!

    I wonder if all the atheist organizations that helped are going to be reimbursed with out taxpayer money too?

  3. Anderson says:

    “Greedy reverends”? Come now.

    Notice what the reimbursement applies to: shelters, medical facilities.

    Being provided in some cases by churches that may well be bankrupted already.

    Read about the Lutheran church described, and tell me they’re not entitled to the money if FEMA’s handing it out. (Disclosure: I attend a Lutheran church in Jackson, MS, which has been relaying & sending supplies to Christus Victor & other churches, shelters, etc., & have spent a little time out there helping unload/load trucks. No check in the mail for me, I’m sure.)

  4. dougrc` says:

    LJ – “I wonder if all the atheist organizations that helped are going to be reimbursed with out taxpayer money too?” ????

    Uh, for example, who? Which athiest group opened their “anti-church” property to shelter the storm victims? There may have been a couple somewhere, but not in the hundreds like the faith-based groups did.

    Thank you, churches! None of them did it for re-imbursement; few of them tried to count the cost before saying yes.

    By the way, do you think the “Reverand” Lynn ever considers “What Would Jesus Do”?

    Nah…I didn’t think so.

  5. legion says:

    James, you hit the stickiness right on the head, and it all depends on exactly which groups are being reimbursed for exactly what… Even if they’re just operating facilities “at the request of the government”, there will have to be a careful accounting by these organizations, and I’m quite certain many them (the churches) have no capability of tracking their expenses that way – they’ve never had to before.

    Another issue I’ve only seen limited discussion on is the potential long-term damage this precedent could do to religious and charitable donations in general… If the tab is going to be picked up by the fed (via tax dollars) anyway, why donate to anything?

    And is it just me, or is this a completely _astounding_ discussion to be having about a _republican_ administration?

  6. Just Me says:

    I can’t say that I like this idea-I think there is a reason it is called charity and volunteers are called volunteers.

    I did notice that Dr. Reccord from the SBC made it clear that our disaster relief organization will not be requesting funding from the US taxpayer.

    A friend of ours works for the SBC disaster relief organization, and was down fixing meals for Katrina victims and relief workers. He is back in NH now though.

  7. Kent says:

    And is it just me, or is this a completely astounding discussion to be having about a republican administration?

    [exaggerated French accent]
    Not any more.
    [/exaggerated French accent]

  8. According to a radio newscast I heard today, this reimbursement applies only to churches that were asked by the state of local governments to perform as shelters or food kitchens. Hence, the churches that did so were acting literally as agents of the state and deserve reimbursement.

    Furthermore, churches that so acted may reasonably be expected to have served hugely greater numbers of people because the govts. were sending them people. So my guess is that each church almost certainly did far more than it would have done on its own.

    And last, even so, no church has to accept the money if it doesn’t want to. This is a tempest in teapot.