Texas Churches Flooded by Harvey Sue FEMA for Discrimination

Building upon Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran ruling, lawsuit claims excluding churches from relief grants violates First Amendment.

A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation, brought by a trio of Pentecostal and charismatic churches across three southeastern Texas counties: Harvest Family Church in suburban Houston, Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, and Rockport First Assembly of God. Harvest Family and Hi-Way both flooded in the hurricane, while Rockport—located just blocks from the Corpus Christi coast—lost its roof.

 

Hurricanes don’t discriminate. As Matthew 5:45 states, God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has to differentiate which victims qualify for government aid. And churches don’t make the cut.

So three Texas churches impacted by Hurricane Harvey sued FEMA this week for deeming them ineligible for disaster relief grants. The agency’s policy excludes sanctuaries that serve as shelters after natural disasters.

“Churches have been told by FEMA: We will use you, but we will not help you,” said Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for Becket, the religious liberty advocate representing the churches.

The three churches filed suit Monday in federal district court in Texas, hoping for relief before the end of FEMA’s month-long application window for Harvey victims.

“Time is of the essence with respect to the subject matter of the churches’ claim. Mold will not wait for litigation process to spread through the churches’ buildings; storm and flood debris will not stop rotting while the government processes their claims,” the suit states.

Churches from Corpus Christi to Houston have rallied to the faithful to help with initial relief efforts, and many church buildings themselves suffered from the unprecedented flooding from last month’s hurricane.

A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation, brought by a trio of Pentecostal and charismatic churches across three southeastern Texas counties: Harvest Family Church in suburban Houston, Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, and Rockport First Assembly of God. Harvest Family and Hi-Way both flooded in the hurricane, while Rockport—located just blocks from the Corpus Christi coast—lost its roof.

They claim that FEMA discriminates on the basis of religion by using it as a factor to keep otherwise public-serving organizations from applying for relief that certain secular counterparts remain eligible for.

Their case brings up the precedent set by the US Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran playground ruling, which stated in June that a church could not be kept from applying for a public grant “solely because it is a church.”

FEMA’s public assistance program focuses on organizations providing public services, so it excludes “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities.”

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