Just weeks after Hurricane Harvey battered the Gulf Coast — and in the looming shadow of Hurricane Irma — several churches damaged by Harvey are suing FEMA for not allowing federal funding to religious institutions applying in need of financial assistance.
Becket, a religious liberty law firm, filed suit on September 5 on behalf of three small Texas churches that are seeking federal funding to rebuild.
Since the 1990s, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has barred religious institutions from receiving federal relief — despite the fact that religious organizations have been lauded for being among the most effective workers on the front lines of providing assistance to victims.
According to Becket, “If a zoo can apply for FEMA funds, so too should churches, synagogues, and mosques.”
The three churches, Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly were all subjected to significant damage from hurricane flooding and in the weeks following the floods have been involved in community efforts to support hurricane victims—including serving some 8,000 emergency meals.
According to documents filed in the District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the FEMA policy “violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment under Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.”
In June 2017, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case, said religious institutions have the same rights as secular institutions to participate in public programs.
Diana Verm, counsel at Becket, protested what she described as the selective nature of FEMA’s policy.
“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,” she said in a statement.
“Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps,” she added.
The complaint, filed by Becket, notes that all three churches offer a diverse range of community activities and services beyond religious services and instruction.
Yet according to FEMA policy, “facilities established or primarily used for…religious…activities are not eligible.” The policy defines religious activities as “worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large.”
Following Hurricane Sandy, which devastated much of the northeast in 2012, a bipartisan bill to amend the FEMA policy and allow religious institutions equal footing was overwhelmingly passed by the United States House of Representatives in a 354–72 vote. The bill, however, died in a Senate committee and therefore was never enacted.
Becket maintains that the current policy fails to recognize that religious institutions often provide the same types of services and outreach as other community centers and organizations that do qualify for FEMA relief.
“FEMA has repeatedly denied disaster assistance funds to countless houses of worship in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, including a Jewish Chabad, a homeless shelter church ministry, and a Unitarian Universalist church,” according to the Becket press release.
“At the same time, FEMA gave aid to an octopus research center, a botanical garden, and community centers that provide sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.”
In an interview with Crux, Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, said “Houses of worship are on the front lines of disaster recovery efforts. It makes no sense for FEMA to continue to discriminate against churches; it’s time to start helping the helpers.”
Lawyers for Becket told Crux that they are hoping for a quick decision on the case as applicants have 30 days to file for FEMA relief following a declaration of a natural disaster.
The three churches that are the co-plaintiffs in this case are located in areas that were declared to be in a disaster relief zone on August 27, giving them less than three weeks until the deadline to apply for FEMA relief is set to expire.