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Gray Miller, a federal judge in Texas, has ruled that the federal government can discriminate against churches whose congregations opened their facilities to government-aid programs that assisted Hurricane Harvey victims.

The ruling was in response to request for a temporary restraining order by three churches whose facilities were damaged in the weather catastrophe. They contend they should be included in the government program designed to help nonprofit organizations restore their facilities after such a disaster, because they were integral in providing assistance.

Miller dismissed the idea that churches should be treated equally.

The judge argued a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing a Missouri church to participate in a government program to make playgrounds safer does not apply to the Texas case.

The playground, used for the church’s school, is “not an ‘essentially religious endeavor,'” he said.

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In the Texas case, he said, “the funding would be used to repair church facilities so that plaintiffs could use their facilities for their primary service, which plaintiffs admit is providing religious activities.”

A lawyer representing the three churches in their suit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund, said there would be an immediate appeal.

“FEMA is turning into the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. By continuing to discriminate against churches, FEMA is sending the message that churches are not full members of the community, even when they are in fact the beating heart of disaster recovery in Texas and elsewhere. We will appeal today’s ruling in favor of FEMA to the Fifth Circuit,” he said.

The ruling from Miller came in the case brought by Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God.

All were impacted by Hurricane Harvey in August. Their facilities were flooded, even while they were providing benefits to community members. But the government said they would not be allowed to participate in standard recovery aid programs.

The Stafford Act allows for federal assistance for natural disasters. However, the act specifically discriminates against religious facilities. The churches are suing FEMA, claiming the rule violates their First Amendment rights.

Miller’s decision prevents the churches from accessing help while they argue their case, but the dispute is far from over.

Explained Becket: “While FEMA recognizes that houses of worship are essential partners in the recovery process, it bans them from receiving recovery grants that are available to other similar private nonprofits. These grants are available to rebuild and repair damaged buildings at a broad range of private nonprofit organizations, such as museums, zoos, and even community centers that provide services such as sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.

“But churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are categorically denied because they use their buildings primarily for religious purposes. FEMA has repeatedly praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship as staging areas for relief efforts. But it denies them equal access to emergency relief simply because they are religious,” Becket said.

“Even though they are essential to rebuilding communities. Even though they serve as staging areas for FEMA’s own relief efforts.”

WND reported in November the the churches received “overwhelming support” from a Houston synagogue and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, but “since the start of the lawsuit, FEMA has continued to shut houses of worship out of the disaster relief grant application process.”

 

WND also reported three other churches wrote to the White House asking the president to intervene.

The nonprofit legal group First Liberty said it had written directly to the White House on behalf of its clients, Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy and Grace Community Church.

‘This is a discriminatory policy started in the past and continued through the Obama administration,” said Chelsey Youman, counsel for First Liberty. “The same religious institutions that are tirelessly serving their communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma are being told by the federal government they don’t deserve the nation’s help.”

The letter came after President Trump voiced support for the churches, tweeting, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

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