updated 12/22/2006 6:10:24 PM ET 2006-12-22T23:10:24

A federal appeals court told the Bush administration Friday that it does not need to immediately restart a housing program for thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims.

The ruling suspends an order by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, who said last month that the Federal Emergency Management Agency violated the Constitution when it eliminated short-term housing assistance. Leon said the agency didn’t explain its reasoning and provided victims only confusing computer-generated codes to explain its decision.

Under Leon’s order, FEMA appeared on track to restore housing payments to families in Texas.

“Maybe we can get this thing jump-started and get these people a roof over their heads before Christmas,” Leon said Monday.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit puts that on hold at least until March. The court suspended Leon’s order until the case can be argued before the panel.

Texas officials have already been advised that the program was being restarted and that federal money would cover housing costs for 4,200 evacuees in Texas. FEMA did not immediately say how it would respond to the decision but, with the court order on hold, it can tell Texas that it no longer plans to make the payments.

“That’s FEMA’s Christmas present to the people of Texas and the United States,” said Kevin Whelan, a spokesman for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which brought the lawsuit. “They managed to appeal long enough to be able to deny housing funding.”

The appeals court did not suspend Leon’s order that required FEMA to explain why evacuees were no longer eligible for funding. The letters that went out this summer contained vague and often contradictory computer codes rather than explanations and Leon order the agency to put it in plain English.

FEMA said it was working on those new letters this week and Whelan said about 4,000 evacuees have received letters.

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