Three churches in the middle of Hurricane Harvey’s path of death and destruction in Texas are suing the federal government because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is refusing to allow them to participate in recovery and restoration programs like other nonprofits.
Because of their faith.
The action has been brought by Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm, on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God churches.
“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,” commented Diana Verm, who works at Becket.
“Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.”
While FEMA has 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, it refuses them permission to participate in recovery and restoration programs.
“To its credit, the federal government has stepped [up] to help the people of Texas, who are already very busy helping one another with the recovery process. One of the leading resources for disaster relief has been houses of worship. Indeed, Plaintiff Hi-Way Tabernacle is currently in use as a shelter for dozens of evacuees, a warehouse for disaster relief supplies, a distribution center for thousands of emergency meals, and a base to provide medical services,” the complaint said.
“FEMA has accordingly rightly recognized that houses of worship have an essential role as places of refuge during the storm, and as nerve centers of recovery afterwards.”
The complaint continues, “Yet FEMA policy explicitly denies equal access to FEMA disaster relief grants for house of worship solely because of their religious status.”
“The Constitution does not allow this exclusionary policy to continue. Under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment – particularly as interpreted by the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church – government may not discriminate against a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque simply because of its status as a place of religious teaching and worship.”
The three plaintiffs are asking “this court to order FEMA to treat them on equal terms with other non-profit organizations in accepting, evaluating, and acting on their disaster relief applications.”
“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake. And they need to know now whether they have any hope of counting on FEMA or whether they will continue to be excluded entirely from these FEMA programs,” the complaint said.
Time is of the essence, explains the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, because they have a deadline for applications of 30 days after the president’s disaster declaration.
The churches are in Cypress, Cleveland and Rockport, Texas, all in the path of Harvey.
“Were the churches not religious, their prohibited ‘worship’ services would instead be eligible as ‘social activities to pursue items of mutual interest’; the impermissible ‘religious instruction’ during religious services would be permissible as ‘educational enrichment activity’; children’s church and women’s Bible Study groups would qualify as a ‘service or activity intended to serve a specific group of individuals’; and meetings between the clergy and other church leaders would be a ‘community board meeting.'”
The bottom line expressed in the complaint is that “the FEMA church exclusion policy thus discriminates against otherwise eligible house of worship simply because they are religious.”
Even though Houston-area churches currently are serving as emergency shelters and providing other services.
The plaintiffs’ buildings all were damaged in the flood, with roofs, walls and vehicles gone.
The policy, then, penalizes churches for being religious, and it places a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion, the complaint explains.
Becket onoted that while churches are excluded, federal help has gone to an octopus research center, a botanical garden and community centers for stamp-collecting clubs.
“Houses of worship are playing a vital role in helping Texans recover from this horrible storm,” said Verm. “It’s time for FEMA to start helping the helpers, not continue a policy of irrational discrimination against churches.”