Judge Orders FEMA to Provide Disaster Relief Funds to Hurricane-Ravaged Churches

Is it a violation of the First Amendment for tax dollars to be given to churches and religious organizations? FEMA believes that it is, and has been withholding disaster relief funds from churches and religious organizations affected by the recent hurricanes. However, a federal judge in Houston has ordered FEMA to change its policy before December 1 — or he’s going to change it for them.

Following the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, it came to light that FEMA wasn’t allowing churches and religious organizations access to disaster relief funds. For many who are upset by FEMA’s policy, the kicker is that FEMA doles out relief aid to other non-profits while accepting vast amounts of aid from churches.

Three evangelical churches, Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God, sued FEMA in September. Last month, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and the Congregation Torah Vachesed synagogue of Houston sided with the three churches and filed a brief in support of the lawsuit.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston noted in their brief that “FEMA’s policy is especially unfair in view of the fact that houses of worship are so often at the very forefront of providing immediate aid to persons in need, regardless of faith, in the aftermath of serious tropical storms and other natural disasters, thereby facilitating and, indeed, reducing the ultimate burden on the government and FEMA to provide such relief.”

According to an article published by Christian Post,

The Congregation Torah Vachesed synagogue of Houston noted that Hurricane Harvey was “particularly unforgiving” to the city’s Jewish community. “Despite this, Jewish institutions have been greatly involved in relief efforts throughout Houston. FEMA’s policy against funding otherwise qualifying religious institutions, however, would deny these same institutions equal access to public assistance to repair flood damage.”

In a press release, Becket, the legal defense team for the churches, explains,

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, houses of worship and religious organizations across Houston, Texas opened their doors and welcomed thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. For local churches, synagogues, and mosques, this was nothing new. From housing and feeding evacuees to loading trucks with meals and hygiene supplies, houses of worship are pillars of safety, hope, and help when disaster strikes.

But disaster doesn’t discriminate, and houses of worship suffer the same kind of devastation that the rest of their communities do. Houston-area houses of worship like Harvest Family Church and Hi-Way Tabernacle suffered unprecedented flooding, and churches along the Gulf Coast like Rockport First Assembly had their steeples blown off and windows blown out. So at the same time that churches are springing into action, they’re also picking up the pieces.

But while FEMA recognizes that houses of worship are essential partners in the recovery process, it bans them from receiving recovery grants that are available to other similar private nonprofits. These grants are available to rebuild and repair damaged buildings at a broad range of private nonprofit organizations, such as museums, zoos, and even community centers that provide services such as sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs. But churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are categorically denied because they use their buildings primarily for religious purposes. FEMA has repeatedly praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship as staging areas for relief efforts.

But it denies them equal access to emergency relief simply because they are religious. Even though they are essential to rebuilding communities. Even though they serve as staging areas for FEMA’s own relief efforts.

At the moment, it appears that Judge Keith Ellison is planning on ruling in favor of the churches if FEMA doesn’t voluntarily change their policy. As Daniel Bloomberg, counsel for Becket, says, “Christmas may come early for hard-hit houses of worship in Texas—the Court has set the clock ticking on FEMA’s irrational religious discrimination policy. It can’t come soon enough.”