Three small churches damaged in Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented Texas deluge are jointly suing a U.S. government agency for access to public recovery funds.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) religiously discriminates against churches by preventing them from seeking disaster recovery funding available to other nonprofits, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty alleges in the suit filed Sept. 5 in Houston federal court.
Damaged in Hurricane Harvey, Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, Texas is one of three churches suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency for access to government funds for disaster relief.
The churches, Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, and Houston-area Harvest Family Church and Hi-Way Tabernacle, augment their case with a June U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a church’s right to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations. None of the churches are Southern Baptist.
FEMA summarily bars churches from seeking emergency aid because churches primarily use their buildings for religious purposes, Becket said in its press release announcing the case.
“FEMA’s policy violates the Constitution, as the Supreme Court recently ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran,” the law firm said.
In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the court said Missouri violated the church’s right to exercise its faith freely by barring it from participating in a government-run, playground resurfacing program. The exclusion “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious” to the U.S. Constitution, the court said in its June 26 opinion.
President Donald Trump supported the Texas churches’ case in a Sept. 8 tweet. “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others),” the president tweeted.
FEMA regularly uses houses of worship as relief shelters as it used Hi-Way Tabernacle after Harvey, Becket said. Three feet of flood water accumulated in Hi-Way Tabernacle’s sanctuary.
“After the costliest and most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, the government should come to the aid of all, not leave important parts of the community underwater,” Becket counsel Diana Verm said in the release. “Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick who it helps.”
Repeatedly, FEMA has denied aid to houses of worship after such disasters as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, turning down a Jewish Chabad, a homeless shelter church ministry and a Unitarian Universalist congregation, the law firm said.
“Houses of worship are playing a vital role in helping Texans recover from this horrible storm,” Verm said. “It’s time for FEMA to start helping the helpers, not continue a policy of irrational discrimination against churches.”
The suit, Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Becket describes itself as a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute working “to defend the free exercise of all faiths, from Anglican to Zoroastrian.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)