HOUSTON (CN) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked a federal judge Tuesday to dismiss claims from three Texas churches that FEMA’s disaster aid policies unconstitutionally discriminate against religious organizations.
The churches — Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God — suffered extensive property damage from Hurricane Harvey. They sued FEMA on Sept. 4, claiming its ban on aid to faith-based organizations violates the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.
FEMA does not offer disaster-relief grants to businesses, but nonprofits such as zoos, nursing homes, museums and homeless shelters that provide “noncritical, but essential governmental services” to the public may be eligible, according to the complaint.
“Yet for houses of worship, FEMA’s policy is ‘simple: No churches need apply,” the churches say.
They cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer: that Missouri could not exclude a church preschool from a state program to resurface playgrounds, because such a denial constitutes religious discrimination.
The Texas churches say the discrimination in their case is “particularly irrational,” as FEMA officials have said that churches serve an essential role in disaster recovery, and that religious organizations are often among the first responders to disasters.
The three churches ask for preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting FEMA from enforcing its church exclusion policies.
“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” the complaint states. “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 churches are represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in Washington, D.C.
In a lengthy response to the request for an injunction, FEMA said it treats religious and nonreligious organizations alike, and does not “categorically exclude churches or other faith-based organizations from public assistance just as it does not categorically award grants to secular nonprofit organizations.”
FEMA said in a Sept. 28 statement that faith-based organizations in areas that have been declared disaster areas may apply for FEMA grants to “help them get back to the business of helping others.”
But Becket Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg told Courthouse News that the FEMA statement was misleading, and that many groups that apply for federal disaster aid wait for years, only to be denied assistance.
Private nonprofits that provide religious services are eligible for public assistance grants only if more than 50 percent of the facility for which they request aid provides “eligible services.” Religious education and religious services are ineligible services in FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide.
Taking direct aim at the policy in a Sept. 29 amicus brief supporting the churches, Houston synagogue Torah Vachesed and the unincorporated group Jews for Religious Liberty say the religious status of a community institution “cannot be resolved by a calculator.”