by Kelvey Vander Hart
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is facing a discrimination lawsuit from three different Houston churches.
More than just homes were destroyed by Harvey; non-profit organizations, including churches and religious organizations, were as well. FEMA has a fund that provides for these groups: the Public Assistance Grant program. Per their website, “PA [Public Assistance] provides grants to state, tribal, territorial, and local governments, and certain types of PNP organizations so that communities can quickly respond to and recover from major disasters or emergencies.”
Organizations such as museums and zoos have full access to these grants, but religious organizations have typically had a harder time obtaining money from this fund and are frequently denied access. After Harvey, Becket, a law firm working to defend religious liberty, has filed a lawsuit in Houston’s federal court on behalf of three different Houston area houses of worship. The suit’s argument is that these places should have the same right to apply and obtain grants as any other non-profit organization.
The three churches are Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly. All three suffered great damage due to the flooding brought on by Harvey and have nevertheless been key players in assisting the community following the disaster. Between the three churches, around 8,000 emergency meals have been provided.
The documents that have been filed with the District Court argue that FEMA’s policy “violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment under Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.” The Trinity Lutheran case determined that religious organizations have equal rights as secular institutions when it comes to participation in public programs.
Diana Verm, counsel at Becket, spoke to the selective nature of FEMA’s policies:
After the costliest and most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, the government should come to the aid of all, not leave important parts of the community underwater… Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.
FEMA also came under fire for their cherry-picking policy when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Funds were denied to multiple houses of worship that were assisting the community and had been damaged during the storm and flooding. However, an octopus research center, botanical garden, and community centers (among others) all received funding.
Ironically, FEMA is reliant on one of the churches involved in the lawsuit: Hi-Way Tabernacle is being used by federal and local emergency services as a shelter and distribution center for food and for medical services. Yet, FEMA still says they are not eligible for funds.
With another likely costly disaster, Hurricane Irma, just winding down, let’s hope FEMA soon changes its tune.