Churches Now Eligible for FEMA Disaster Aid. “Churches suing the US government for funds to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey received some good news at the start of 2018: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has revised its policies to make churches eligible for federal assistance following a disaster. In the very first line of the 200-page-plus guide for FEMA’s public assistance program, the agency explicitly clarifies its new stance welcoming churches and other religious facilities that offer public services. ‘Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of [public assistance] nonprofit applicants,’ wrote Alex Amparo, assistant administrator of FEMA’s recovery directorate. FEMA cites last year’s major US Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which the high court decided that a church could not be deemed ineligible for a public benefit (in that case, grant funding to resurface a playground) solely due to its religious nature” (“FEMA: Churches Flooded by Harvey Can Receive Aid,” Christianity Today).
Oregon Court Rules Baker Violated Public Accommodation Law. “In Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries . . . an Oregon appeals court in a 62-page opinion agreed with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries that Sweetcakes bakery violated the state's public accommodation law when it refused to design and create a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. The court upheld $135,000 in damages that the Bureau had awarded. The court held that the bakery's refusal of service was ‘on account of’ the couple's sexual orientation. Rejecting plaintiffs' constitutional arguments, the court said that ‘the final order does not impermissibly burden the Kleins' right to the free exercise of their religion because it simply requires their compliance with a neutral law of general applicability’” (“Oregon Appeals Court Upholds Judgment Against Baker Who Refused Same-Sex Wedding Cake,” Religion Clause).
Read about how public accommodations laws affect churches in this article from Church Law & Tax Report.
Fear of Immigration Agents Contributes to Historic Church’s Closure. “After more than 100 years, a Roman Catholic church in Detroit is closing, partly because Hispanics who worship there fear immigration agents. . . . All Saints was founded in 1896 and has been at its current site since the early 1900s, the Detroit Free Press reported Saturday. The pastor at St. Gabriel, the Rev. Marc Gawronski, said there are many reasons for the closing of All Saints. The church has weak finances, needs repairs, and has been losing members. A construction project on Interstate 75 has hurt attendance. Gawronski said there has been an increase in raids and enforcement by federal immigration agents in the community. Immigration agents have an ‘informal agreement that they have affirmed that they will not go into churches and not hassle people going to church,’ he said. Nonetheless, ‘people are even nervous about being able to get up in the morning and go to church.’ Only three people attended a Spanish Mass on a recent Wednesday night, the Free Press reported” (“Fear of ICE Among Reasons Century-Old Detroit Church Closing,” US News and World Report).
Read more about immigration laws (and how they affect churches) in one of our most-read blog posts of 2017.
Rebuilding of Church Destroyed on 9/11 Is Suspended Over Finances, Donation Management. “Construction on a Greek Orthodox church to replace one that was crushed in the Sept. 11 attacks has been temporarily suspended amid rising costs and questions over how donations have been managed. The church admitted that it is having money woes and hired outside auditors to see if funds are being mismanaged, CBS New York reports. The St. Nicholas National Shrine next to the World Trade Center memorial plaza was to replace a tiny church that was obliterated when the trade center's south tower fell in 2001. The new building was designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, who also created the soaring white bird-like mall and transit hub nearby called the Oculus. But unlike the transit hub, built largely with federal transportation dollars, the church is being funded through donations including from the Greek government, Greek Orthodox church members around the world, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Italian city of Bari, whose patron saint is St. Nicholas. . . . The Greek Orthodox archdiocese, based in New York, represents more than 500 parishes across the country with more than 1.5 million members of the church and 800 priests. It reported last fall that it was suffering from a ‘severe and complex’ financial deficit” (“Construction halted on rebuilding church destroyed in 9/11 attacks,” CBS News).
Learn more about best practices for church building project in this article.
Emily Lund is assistant editor for Church Law & Tax.
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