The federal government has responded to a lawsuit by three Texas churches against the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “discriminatory” practice of forbidding churches from participating in hurricane-recovery programs by telling them to just wait.
The three churches that sued FEMA later received support from President Trump as well as at least one member of Congress.
The churches were in Hurricane Harvey’s path of death and destruction and sued because FEMA bans them, because they are religious organizations, from participating in recovery programs.
The lawsuit was 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 of Becket.
“Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.”
President Trump later tweeted:
Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 9, 2017
But in a court filing in the case, the Department of Justice argued against a preliminary injunction, insisting the churches haven’t suffered any harm because their applications are still in process.
“Plaintiffs have not made any showing of injury here, let alone injury that is substantial, imminent, and irreparable. Against this non-existent showing of harm weighs the significant public interest in FEMA’s adherence to the Stafford Act, which ‘is designed to bring an orderly and systematic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens,” the government’s filing said.
It continued: “Because plaintiffs’ applications have not yet been completed or processed, they have not suffered any harm. … They thus lack standing and their claims aren’t ripe for adjudication. Each of these reasons is alone sufficient for the court to deny plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.”
The DOJ pointed out that it sometimes takes “several years” to decide where rebuilding funds should be directed. The agency also insisted it doesn’t necessarily ban churches from its program; it bans organizations in which less than 50 percent of its facilities are used for secular work such as food banks.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote to FEMA administrator Brock Long requesting an explanation for the decision to discriminate.
“This policy discriminates against people of faith,” the senator wrote. “It sends the message that communities of worship aren’t welcome to participate fully in public life. … It reduces the facilities and volunteer time, talent, and effort available to support the broader community. And it is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s recent 7-2 ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer. … In other words, it is unjust. It is unconstitutional. It is unreasonable. And it is impeding ongoing recovery efforts.”
The senator told the federal agency “there is no room for discriminatory policies that hinder the tasks of recovery and rebuilding. That is why I am disturbed to learn of FEMA’s refusal to allow religious Americans equal access to disaster aid.”
“When facilities for stamp and coin collecting are eligible for aid,” he said, “but houses of worship aren’t, something has gone seriously wrong.”
WND reported when the case developed that while FEMA has praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, 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 continued, “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.”
Later, three additional churches in similar predicaments wrote directly to the White House asking that President Trump intervene.
The new letter asked the administration to remove the discriminatory directive and tell FEMA to extend disaster relief aid to religious nonprofits.
FEMA already has provided help to “non-critical” services such as “museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops and facilities which provide health and safety services of a governmental nature.”
The churches point out that the U.S. Supreme Court “very recently held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects religious organizations against unequal treatment.”