By Emma Green
Tucked among the provisions in the budget bill passed by Congress on Friday are new rules about how FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, works with houses of worship. According to the new law, religious nonprofits can’t be excluded from disaster aid just because of their religious nature, which had been the agency’s policy in certain contexts prior to January.
The move resolves a long-standing controversy over the agency’s policy on religious aid, mostly recently raised during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which damaged a number of houses of worship in the South. It’s also part of a significant trend: Rules on government money going to religious organizations are loosening, a shift that has consequences well beyond disaster aid and emergency management.
Last summer, when Hurricane Harvey ripped across islands in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and Texas, it left roughly $125 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—second in cost only to Hurricane Katrina. Worse, it was followed almost immediately by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which further devastated Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and other areas.
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