In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented destruction, flooded churches in Texas have sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seeking equal access to disaster relief grants available to other non-profits. In Harvest Family Church v. FEMA, three small Texas churches damaged by Harvey are challenging a FEMA policy that bans them from applying to its relief program simply because they are religious.
While many private nonprofit organizations, such as museums and zoos, qualify for FEMA’s relief programs to help make basic structural repairs and begin rebuilding, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are denied access to grants. FEMA’s policy violates the Constitution, as the Supreme Court recently ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran protecting the right of religious organizations to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations. The Becket Fund has filed a lawsuit in Houston federal court against FEMA on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God arguing that these churches have the same right to apply for disaster relief grants as other nonprofit organizations.
“We’re just picking up the pieces like everyone else. And we just want to be treated like everyone else,” said Paul Capehart of Harvest Family Church. “Our faith is what drives us to help others. Faith certainly doesn’t keep us from helping others, and we’re not sure why it keeps FEMA from helping us.”
FEMA has previously praised churches and religious ministries and the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship to set up relief centers. In fact, just as it did after Hurricanes Rita and Ike, FEMA and local government agencies are currently using Hi-Way Tabernacle to shelter dozens of evacuees, distribute meals, and provide medical care. Yet 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 has repeatedly denied disaster assistance funds to countless houses of worship in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, including a Jewish Chabad, a homeless shelter church ministry, and a Unitarian Universalist church. At the same time, FEMA gave aid to an octopus research center, a botanical garden, and community centers that provide sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.
“Houses of worship are playing a vital role in helping Texans recover from this horrible storm,” said Verm. “It’s time for FEMA to start helping the helpers, not continue a policy of irrational discrimination against churches.”