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TX Churches Sue FEMA for Disaster Relief

Texas churches that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey but are being denied relief by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are suing the agency citing discrimination due to their religious status.

According to Becket, a law firm defending religious liberty for all, three Texas churches are suing the FEMA policy that bans them from applying for relief simply because they are religious.

While many private nonprofit organizations, such as museums and zoos, qualify for FEMA’s relief programs to help make basic structural repairs and begin rebuilding, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are denied access to grants, Becket reports.

Currently, FEMA excludes buildings that provide “critical service” or “essential government services” from repair if more than half their space is used for religious programming, the lawsuit states. Museums and zoos are eligible for relief, but churches are not.

The lawsuit asserts that FEMA’s policy violates the Constitution, and cites the Supreme Court’s recent 7-2 ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case which was in favor of protecting the right of religious organizations to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

“We’re just picking up the pieces like everyone else. And we just want to be treated like everyone else,” said Paul Capehart of Harvest Family Church, one of the three churches involved in the suit. “Our faith is what drives us to help others. Faith certainly doesn’t keep us from helping others, and we’re not sure why it keeps FEMA from helping us.”

The other two churches are Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God, which also sustained heavy damage from the storm that dropped 40-52 inches of rain in southeast Texas last month.

“FEMA has previously 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. In fact, just as it did after Hurricanes Rita and Ike, FEMA and local government agencies are currently using Hi-Way Tabernacle to shelter dozens of evacuees, distribute meals, and provide medical care. Yet Hi-Way is not eligible for relief for the three-foot flood it suffered in its sanctuary, simply because it primarily uses its building for religious purposes,” Becket reports.

FEMA has repeatedly denied disaster assistance funds to countless houses of worship in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, while at the same time giving aid to an octopus research center, a botanical garden, and community centers that provide sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.

“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” the lawsuit reads. “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.”

“Houses of worship are playing a vital role in helping Texans recover from this horrible storm,” said Diana Verm, counsel at Becket. “It’s time for FEMA to start helping the helpers, not continue a policy of irrational discrimination against churches.”

Representatives of FEMA has thus far declined to comment on the case.

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