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September 25, 2017
Barred from disaster relief, damaged Texas churches sue government
Damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Credit: AMFPhotography via Shutterstock.
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.- Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, claiming they have been denied disaster relief grants due to their religious status.

“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, a non-profit religious liberty law firm representing the churches.

“Hurricane Harvey didn't cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn't cherry-pick who it helps.”

Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged the Texas coast in recent weeks, brought severe flooding to Southeast Texas, resulted in the deaths of over 60 persons, displaced 30,000, and damaged or destroyed homes throughout the region. It has reportedly caused billions of dollars of damage.

Becket filed a lawsuit against FEMA in a Houston federal court. In a complaint filed on Monday, three Texas churches – Harvest Family Church of Cypress, Tex., Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, Tex., and Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, Tex. – said that FEMA unlawfully denied them grants for disaster relief simply because of their religious status.

FEMA's disaster relief policy states that “[f]acilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities are not eligible” for grants.

Yet other non-profit community centers are eligible for grants, Becket says. And churches, some of which have helped distribute FEMA aid, need relief grants to make serious repairs.

“We're just picking up the pieces like everyone else. And we just want to be treated like everyone else,” said Paul Capehart of Harvest Family Church.

“Our faith is what drives us to help others. Faith certainly doesn’t keep us from helping others, and we’re not sure why it keeps FEMA from helping us.”

The churches' complaint claims that their eligibility for disaster relief is protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, that they cannot be denied relief simply because of their religious status.

And churches have been actively helping distribute disaster relief. One of the churches in the lawsuit, HiWay 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 stated. Over 8,000 FEMA emergency meals have been handed out at the church’s facilities.

And other non-profit facilities are eligible for disaster relief, like “community centers,” the complaint said, so religious non-profits shouldn’t be excluded from grants.

The churches are in need of serious repairs, the complaint said. For instance, Rockport First Assembly of God saw its roof and its internal lighting and insulation destroyed. Serious flood damage also occurred at Hi-Way Tabernacle and harvest Family Churches.

FEMA's policy prohibiting churches from receiving disaster relief is also in opposition to the Supreme Court's ruling months ago in the Trinity Lutheran case, Becket argued.

In that case, the court had ruled in favor of a Lutheran church, which had applied for a state program that would reimburse it for resurfacing the playground of its school with material made from recycled tires.

Becket said that court's decision was “protecting the right of religious organizations to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.”

The court's majority opinion in the case did contain a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and did not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, pointing out that the footnote in question could be misinterpreted.

“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “'playground resurfacing' cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.

He said that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise – whether on the playground or anywhere else.”