Three churches in the Houston, Texas area have recently taken action to sue the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) due to them denying the churches and synagogues disaster relief funds because of their religious identities.
Religious organizations participating in the lawsuit include one Assemblies of God and two non-denominational churches who are fighting together against what they call discrimination. According to the suit, FEMA’s actions could mean serious financial issues for congregations in Houston and other areas of the U.S. that have seen damage due to the many hurricanes this season.
FEMA’s Troubling Policy
Several churches and synagogues in storm damaged Southern U.S. areas have been victims of the excessive hurricanes we have seen this year. Worse yet, FEMA has refused to offer any repair assistance, citing the 1998 FEMA policy that forbids them from giving grants to repair damaged buildings that are regularly used as houses of worship for religious services.
Ironically, these are the same churches and synagogues that are home to many of the first responders in these areas. In addition, the houses of worship have served as FEMA command stations all over the country. Some of these damaged buildings have even been used by FEMA to house their emergency team operations during the recent storms. Although FEMA has utilized the buildings of many congregations, the agency’s policy forbids them from providing the churches with the money and grants needed to repair damaged property.
There is however, one major condition that is in question in FEMA’s policy. The agency’s Mixed-Use” policy offers emergency funding for houses of worship if the religious functions do not exceed 50% of the facility’s total use. For Jews and Catholics, this is very reminiscent of the government’s history of discrimination against them, which they find completely unacceptable.
Attorneys for Jews for Religious Liberty and Congregation Torah Vachesed feels the discrimination is blatant and the policy is intrusive.
“In order for FEMA to determine whether a Jewish 501(c)(3) is too religious — or in this case, too Jewish — to qualify for hurricane assistance, the government must wade deeply into what constitutes the Jewish faith,” they argued. “This type of religious line-drawing impermissibly entangles the government with religion. This policy requires that FEMA discriminate against any facility deemed too Jewish either in purpose or practice.”
Others recognize the importance of these churches and realize that without them, many people in rural and low-income areas would be without necessities, which would then become the responsibility of the government to provide aid and assistance to these people.
Kenneth Priest, strategies director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said “these churches are already living paycheck to paycheck, so to speak, and have little margin. Many of the churches are in low income areas [and] provide a great community service of ministering to the needs in their community.”
According to Priest, some of the churches affected by the storms could actually face permanently closing due to the financial crisis the storms caused, but could be saved by a grant from FEMA to help them buy lumber, drywall, and other necessary supplies needed for essential repairs by the teams of volunteers.
Several congregations, including the Jewish, Catholic, Pentecostal, and non-denominational, say they are being unfairly penalized and that the faith that guides their efforts to help people is being held against them in regard to FEMA grants. The attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Diana Verm indicated that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Trinity Lutheran v. Comer should have resolved the problem and set a precedent regarding faith-based discrimination in government grant programs.
Although it is against FEMA’s policy to provide grants for repair of buildings used for religious purposes, their response to the lawsuit was flippant at best. They maintain that the plaintiffs, which include all churches with significant structural damage (including one which was used by FEMA after the storm) have no legal reason to bring a lawsuit to sue because they have not yet been denied assistance, as their applications are still pending approval.
Meanwhile, religious leaders told USA Today that they will continue to “feed the hungry, care for the orphan and elder, shelter the homeless, and welcome the immigrant” despite these setbacks.
~ 1776 Christian