Christmas may come early for churches in Texas that were denied hurricane damage benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency – sometimes even as they were working with the government to provide benefits to others, according to a lawyer involved in a lawsuit over the issue.
“The court has set the clock ticking on FEMA’s irrational religious discrimination policy,” said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm representing three churches.
“It can’t come soon enough.”
U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison ruled against FEMA’s request to delay the case until the end of the month.
The churches, 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 ruling “suggests that the end may be near for the agency’s policy that explicitly discriminations against houses of worship because of their religious status,” Becket reported.
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The religious groups have gotten “overwhelming support” from a Houston synagogue and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houstin, but “since the start of the lawsuit, FEMA has continued to shut houses of worship out of the disaster relief grant application process.”
Ellison’s ruling references, several times, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, a decision that struck down a state ban on church participation in a state playground improvement program simply because the playground was at a church.
The ruling concludes that religious groups must get equal access to widely available public programs.
Ellison technically denied a Department of Justice request to delay the case, and set a December 1 deadline for FEMA to make adjustments. If the agency doesn’t, he could issue a temporary restraining order against FEMA’s guidelines pending a full trial.
He recognized it is a “First Amendment” case and that churches have sustained significant damage from the policy that is “fraught” with constitutional questions.
“Discriminating against houses of worship – which are often on the front lines of disaster relief—is not just wrongheaded, it strikes at our nation’s most fundamental values,” Becket said.
Explained Becket, “Houses of worship were among the first to respond in Harvey’s aftermath and they continue to provide aid to their communities. While the court heard arguments on Tuesday, Hi-Way Tabernacle was unloading several tractor trailers of food and goods for distribution to hundreds of people in their community. Bizarrely, FEMA’s current policy discriminates against churches while at the same time using them for its own relief efforts.”
WND reported when the case arose that while FEMA praised churches and religious ministries and the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship to set up relief centers, it refused them permission to participate in recovery and restoration programs.
The complaint said, “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.”
“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake. 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 complaint said.
The churches are in Cypress, Cleveland and Rockport, Texas, all in the path of Harvey. Their buildings all were damaged in the flood, with roofs, walls and vehicles gone.
WND also reported that separately, three other churches wrote to the White House asking the president to intervene in the situation.
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 that “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
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
“When disaster strikes, that’s when people turn to religion the most,” said First Liberty client Pastor Jorge Cardenas of Church on the Rock in Katy, Texas. “The floodwaters didn’t stop at our church’s door and, just like the rest of Houston, it’s going to cost us thousands of dollars to rebuild. We need all the help we can get.”