Houses of worship damaged during natural disasters will be able to rebuild using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Trump administration announced this week, a shift that traditional faith groups have asked from presidents for decades without success.

The new funding rules were released in an update to the policy guide for FEMA. Similar rules are in a House measure that passed late last year and in a pending Senate bill. They are being challenged by church-state advocacy groups that say they violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on the government “establishing” religion.

The issue is also pending in federal courts because of lawsuits against FEMA by three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues hit last year by hurricanes that were denied FEMA funding. Lawyers for those houses of worship are waiting to make sure funding comes through, the San Antonio Express-News reported this week.

“We thank the Trump administration for righting this longtime wrong and treating disaster-damaged churches, synagogues and other houses of worship fairly –- on the same terms as other nonprofits such as museums, community centers and libraries stricken by natural disaster,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, a major U.S. Orthodox Jewish organization.

The debate about FEMA funding doesn’t affect a huge number of institutions, since FEMA designation only happens after rare major disasters such as the trio of hurricanes that hit the United States last year – Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. For example, Diament said after Harvey four or five synagogues and a few dozen churches sought such aid, while in Florida there was less damage to such spots.

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