Damaged Texas Churches Sue FEMA for Cutting Them Out of Hurricane Harvey Aid
Even churches that worked with FEMA to provide disaster relief were refused funds provided to other nonprofits.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives disaster relief grants to not-for-profits — except for churches and synagogues. It will aid secular nonprofits like museums and zoos. It will aid senior centers and hospitals run by religious organizations, but not “houses of worship.” FEMA asserts that aiding religious congregations would violate the separation of church and state.
Three Churches Sue
No, it wouldn’t, argues the public-interest law firm Becket. Becket has filed a lawsuit against FEMA on behalf of three churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey. They are Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God.
Becket lawyer Diana Verm says the policy isn’t fair. “Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims. FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.”
“Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims. FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.”
Verm noted that the agency “has previously praised churches and religious ministries and the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship to set up relief centers.”
Hi-Way Tabernacle, for example, is working with FEMA to “shelter dozens of evacuees, distribute meals, and provide medical care.” The church provided shelter for close to 70 people. It gave out more than 8,000 meals. The church endured three feet of water in its sanctuary.
Paul Capehart of Harvest Family Church said, “We’re just picking up the pieces like everyone else. And we just want to be treated like everyone else.”
A Problem After Sandy
It’s not a new problem. Four years ago, Pastor Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School, told The Christian Post about the unfair distribution of relief grants after Hurricane Sandy. “There are rowdy beer halls, sleazy nightclubs, and smutty ‘adult’ stores, even witchy botánica businesses,” he said. “They are all open and thriving again because of generous grants from the tax-payers’ pockets.”
After Sandy, according to the Jewish site Forward, the House of Representatives passed legislation to change the rule, by an overwhelming vote of 354-72, but the Senate didn’t. Senate sponsors included Mike Lee (R.-UT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D.-NY).
““Houses of worship, which often provide much needed assistance during natural disasters, should not be denied federal disaster assistance from FEMA. It’s that simple,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D.-NY). In the next Congress Meng introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, with Rep. Christopher Smith (R.-NJ).
That bill recognized that “Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship throughout communities nationwide play an essential role in the daily lives of the communities. … These activities are essential to community building.” The bill noted that FEMA gave aid “using criteria that are neutral with regard to religion.” It died in committee.
But the Rules May Change
According to Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, efforts are being made to change the policy. He thinks it may even change in the next few days.
“I would say that we’re optimistic that the Trump administration will have a different view on this policy,” Diament said. “We are hopeful that we will not have the same problems in the wake of Harvey that we had in the wake of Sandy.”
The recent Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer may carry some weight. The high court held that a state agency could not withhold grant funds from a church just because it was a church.
The church had applied for a state grants to replace the surface of its playground. It qualified for the grant but the state rejected its application. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Repairing Hurricane damage to churches and synagogues provides a public benefit. It helps its community as well as its congregation. Giving such aid is not much different than giving aid to repair a church school’s playground. The church’s lawsuit states, “The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake.”