Religious Law

3 Texas churches sue FEMA over exclusion from disaster relief

  • Print.

Three churches in Texas have filed a lawsuit seeking equal access to disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair their buildings after Hurricane Harvey.

The Becket religious liberty group filed the suit on behalf of three churches who say FEMA violates the free exercise clause when it treats them differently than other nonprofits, report Reuters and Bloomberg Politics. A Becket press release is here.

“This discrimination is particularly irrational in the disaster relief context” since churches and other houses of worship are often among the first responders providing help after a disaster, the suit says.

One of the plaintiff churches, the Hi-Way Tabernacle, is serving as a staging center for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, despite suffering some flooding and damage, the suit says. The church took in evacuees, its gym is serving as a storage area, and it is being used to distribute emergency meals.

The other plaintiffs are the Harvest Family Church and Rockport First Assembly of God.

FEMA grants are allowed for nonprofits that provide critical services or that are open to the public and provide essential government services. Eligible facilities include museums, zoos, libraries, community centers, homeless shelters and senior citizen centers.

The churches assert they would be eligible for assistance under the guidelines if their buildings were not used primarily for religious activities.

“For houses of worship, FEMA’s policy is ‘simple: No churches need apply,’ ” the suit says.

The suit quotes from Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The June decision held that a church’s free-exercise rights were violated when it was denied a state grant to resurface its playground because it was a religious institution.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.