September 14, 2017
While developments continue to unfold regarding the agency's policy of denying disaster relief to churches and a lawsuit related to the issue, the verdict on FEMA's religious tolerance is still up in the air.
The issue gained attention last week when three Texas churches filed a lawsuit against FEMA due to its policy of denying disaster relief to churches and other groups simply because of their religious nature. Under FEMA's public assistance disaster relief program, repair money is available to a host of entities providing both critical and noncritical services. Examples of noncritical services include venues hosting art classes, food assistance services, health and safety programs, senior services, museums, zoos, and even stamp and coin collecting. Moreover, aid is also available to what are termed "various social functions of community groups." Yet churches are banned under this policy because they are "religious."
But Hurricane Harvey didn't discriminate. When the storm hit the Texas coast, Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God were all extensively damaged. As the churches document in their lawsuit, roofs caved in, trees fell in the buildings, and flooding caused serious damage to multiple structures. These churches need what is known as "emergency work" under FEMA's public assistance program, yet they will be denied such relief because they are not "eligible" -- solely because they are religious. Unfortunately, without debris removal and repair, according to the churches, people using their facilities and grounds face serious health and safety concerns as a result of "broken glass, sharp metal and wood, downed trees, falling limbs, mold and mildew, slick surfaces, and structures that are weakened by high winds and flooding." While Harvey didn't discriminate, FEMA did, and as a result the churches filed a lawsuit against FEMA challenging its ban as a violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. As Diana Verm, a Becket Law attorney representing the churches, observed, "Hurricane Harvey didn't cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn't cherry-pick who it helps."
When the issue became public, President Trump seemed to side with the churches, tweeting: "Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)." Jamie Johnson, Director of the Center for Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, replied to the tweet with "Amen!" The Congressional Black Caucus seems to support the move too, noting that churches often provide needed services during disasters, and shouldn't have to fight for reimbursement.
And why should they, when faith groups and churches are providing the lion's share of the effort toward cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey and other disasters? Churches and religious institutions already care for many in the community; it would add insult to injury to deny them the same aid offered to others.
It is ironic, as Becket pointed out, that FEMA is "currently using Hi-Way Tabernacle to shelter dozens of evacuees, distribute meals, and provide medical care." However, "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." FEMA recognizes the good that churches do for disaster areas, and regularly uses houses of worship to set up relief centers. The minimum it can do after using them is treat them fairly in its relief programs.
The churches have other cheerleaders too. Congressman Chris Smith has introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2017. Under his proposed legislation, which amends the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act by implementing the holding of Trinity Lutheran, religious entities will be treated exactly the same as all other entities under consideration for disaster relief assistance. The bill does this in two ways: (1) it amends the definition of "private nonprofit facility" in the Stafford Act to explicitly include "houses of worship" (currently the definition includes museums, zoos, performing arts facilities, community arts centers, community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers, rehabilitation facilities, shelter workshops, and facilities that provide health and safety services, but not churches); and (2) it amends the definition of what facilities can receive repair money by explicitly saying that houses of worship shall be eligible even if the money is used to repair a building used for religious purposes (in essence, churches would now be completely eligible). This is good legislation and it should be passed and signed into law.
The president can (and should) change FEMA's policy right now, but Congressman Smith's legislation is needed to make the change a statutory one. We urge action in both areas.
For the three churches in Texas, and the many other religious institutions damaged by disasters, such relief can't come soon enough.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.