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Churches sue FEMA for recovery money after Hurricane Harvey

POSTED: September 11, 2017 9:10 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Faith communities play an important role in disaster relief, and yet they can struggle to resolve their own storm-related losses.

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Three Texas churches are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, claiming that a recent, high-profile Supreme Court ruling guarantees them access to federal recovery money.

“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,” said Diana Verm, counsel at Becket, the law firm representing the faith communities, in a press release.

Houses of worship are currently excluded from some forms of federal disaster assistance, along with other facilities "established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational or academic training," according to FEMA's overview of its public assistance program. Recovery funds are instead channeled to nonprofits that provide critical educational, emergency or medical services, as well as zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters and other facilities that are open to the public.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 5, will test the limits of the Supreme Court's June ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, which centered on whether a religiously affiliated preschool should be able to access government money to make playground safety-related improvements.

Justices ruled that faith-based organizations can receive funds channeled to nonreligious purposes, and the majority opinion attempted to limit its scope to cases related to playground resurfacing.

The court stated that "states have a compelling reason to ensure they don't fund indisputably religious activities like ministerial training, but they don't have a compelling reason to refuse to buy things like ground-up tires," said Frederick Gedicks, a law professor at Brigham Young University, to the Deseret News at the time.

However, there was apparent disagreement between the justices about how the Trinity Lutheran ruling should be interpreted moving forward. Houses of worship are eligible for some forms of FEMA assistance, such as low-interest loans, but Harvest Family Church v. FEMA is pushing for broader inclusion.

“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," Becket's press release said.

Becket argues that current FEMA policies are unconstitutional and unfair, because churches suffer as much storm-related damage as other buildings, and often play a vital role in community recovery effort, yet they can't receive all the government support they need.

“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.”

One of the three churches named in the lawsuit, Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, Texas, is serving as a shelter for evacuees and storage facility for disaster relief supplies as it struggles to resolve flooring problems from extensive flooding.

The other two — Harvest Family Church in Cypress, Texas, and Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, Texas — are dealing with destroyed carpets, a wrecked roof and a lost steeple as they seek to ensure the safety of parishioners.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, "faith-based organizations are effective for one fundamental reason: They are familiar with, and care about, their communities, in some cases more than federal or out-of-state relief organizations," as Pacific Standard reported last week.

The lawsuit isn't intended to question the value of nonprofits currently served by FEMA's public assistance program, according to Becket. The organization's hope is that churches will be allowed to apply for additional funds, not given priority over other nonprofits.

Applications for FEMA emergency assistance funds are due within 30 days of a presidential disaster declaration, so Becket hopes its lawsuit can be resolved quickly. Nonprofits will need to have their Hurricane Harvey-related information submitted to FEMA by Sept. 26.

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