On Wednesday, the religious freedom law firm First Liberty sent President Donald Trump a letter, asking him to stop discrimination against religious organizations when it comes to disaster relief. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton also sent Trump a letter, and three Texas churches filed a lawsuit. While religious groups provide at least 60 percent of all disaster relief aid, they are ineligible to apply for monetary assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“I think it’s important to know that these religious entities are victims, just like the communities they’re serving,” Chelsey Youman, counsel at First Liberty Institute, told PJ Media in an interview.
“This is a discriminatory policy started in the past and continued through the Obama administration,” Youman added. “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.”
“When disaster strikes, that’s when people turn to religion the most,” Pastor Jorge Cardenas of Church on the Rock in Katy, Texas, one of the churches heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey and represented by First Liberty, said in a statement. “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.”
President Donald Trump himself tweeted, “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
According to current statutes, however, they are not eligible.
FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide (PA Policy Guide) notes that churches and other religious organizations are ineligible for disaster relief simply because they are religious organizations. Youman told PJ Media the policy was adopted in 1998, but it arguably violates the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) and the First Amendment.
The PA Policy Guide lists “non-critical” services that are nonetheless eligible for disaster relief funds, such as “museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, etc.” but doesn’t include religious organizations. The Stafford Act, however, mandates that regulations “shall include provisions for ensuring that the distribution of supplies, the processing of applications, and other relief and assistance activities shall be accomplished in an equitable and impartial manner, without discrimination on the grounds of … religion.”
By allowing museums, zoos, and homeless shelters to apply for relief but forbidding religious organizations from doing so, the PA Policy Guide discriminates on the basis of religion, Youman argued in her letter to Trump.
Youman also claimed that the PA Policy Guide violated the First Amendment. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a church-run playground receiving reimbursement funds for a playground. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Court argued that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program because of their religion.
In Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court interpreted the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to mean that the government cannot deny a religious organization “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status.” Therefore, Youman argued, FEMA’s exclusion of religious organizations violates the First Amendment.
The First Liberty lawyer told PJ Media that estimates of the damage from Hurricane Harvey on the three churches First Liberty is representing are still coming in, but in one case alone the estimate for repairs to the carpet comes to $1.5 million. For one church, just airing out the water with fans would cost $850,000.
While First Liberty is representing churches, the policy extends far beyond them. “The policy doesn’t just prohibit churches from applying, it’s any religious nonprofit,” Youman told PJ Media. The current policy excludes parochial schools and religious charities, and so “hundreds if not thousands of religious entities are impacted by this discriminatory policy.”
This is particularly egregious, considering that religious nonprofits have far outperformed FEMA in terms of providing disaster relief.
“About 80 percent of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based,” Greg Forrester, CEO of the national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), an alliance of volunteer organizations helping FEMA get disaster relief to hurricane victims, told USA Today. About 75 percent of the organizations in his alliance are faith-based.
The money for such a massive endeavor is “all raised by the individuals who go and serve, raised through corporate connections, raised through church connections,” Forrester added.
“FEMA cannot do what it does so well without the cooperation of faith-based nonprofit organizations and churches,” the Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, told USA Today. “It’s a beautiful relationship between government and the private sector and it is something to behold.”
Just as the PA Policy Guide discriminates against all religious groups, regardless of denomination, so the faith-based organizations involved in disaster relief run the gamut. Forrester said there are Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Jewish relief agencies hard at work. If these agencies’ offices were damaged by the hurricanes, the current policy excludes them from applying for FEMA funds.
While First Liberty made a strong case for churches being eligible to receive disaster funds, critics have argued that such funding of religious organizations would violate another part of the First Amendment, the establishment clause. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Many countries send tax dollars directly to churches in the form of public tithes. The First Amendment was expressly forbidding the federal government from doing so. Some argue that by enabling religious nonprofits to receive FEMA funds, the government would be establishing a religion.
The Trump administration could get around this objection by making clear that every single religious nonprofit, not limited to specific religions or denominations, would be eligible for relief. As in Trinity Lutheran, sending federal money to religious organizations does not violate the establishment clause if it is available to all, respective of belief.
Youman’s letter requested three actions from Trump to solve this unconstitutional situation. First, she asked the president to “amend the PA Policy Guide to clarify that religious private nonprofit organizations are entitled to apply for and receive Public Assistance on an equal basis as non-religious private nonprofit organizations.”
Second, she requested that Trump “publicly acknowledge that even though Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy, and Grace Community Church are religious private nonprofit organizations, they are entitled to apply for and receive Public Assistance.”
Finally, Youman asked the president to “provide a 30-day extension from the date of the revised PA Policy’s publication for eligible religious private nonprofit organizations to apply for Public Assistance for relief from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”
According to FEMA statutes, organizations have a 30-day window to apply for aid after their county has been designated a disaster zone. The deadline for the churches represented by First Liberty is September 26. Because the issue is time-sensitive, Youman’s letter requested that Trump perform these actions by September 25.
Youman told PJ Media she is hopeful that Trump will issue such a proclamation. “Our hope is that the Trump administration and FEMA will respond positively to this and they will act now as fast as they can,” she said.
While the churches and the deadline in question apply to areas of Texas hit by Hurricane Harvey, the policy applies nationwide, so any change would also enable religious nonprofits in Florida hit by Hurricane Irma to apply for federal relief.