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FEMA Discriminating Against Churches? Federal Lawsuit Seeks Disaster Aid


Pressure is mounting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to re-examine its policy about paying disaster assistance funds for the repair of church buildings and other houses of worship. In the past, FEMA has denied such claims. 

A hearing was scheduled Tuesday in Houston, Texas federal court over a case that may decide whether Hurricane Harvey damaged houses of worship in Texas will be treated equally as other non-profits and will be allowed access to relief funds. 

Attorneys for the Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God will argue that houses of worship should be allowed to have equal access to FEMA aid. 

"If the church was on fire, a fire truck would come to their aid. If there was a medical emergency, an ambulance would come to their aid," Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, the non-profit law firm representing the three churches, said in a statement.  "A natural disaster should be no different. These three churches helped their communities without discrimination, and FEMA should do the same."

Since the lawsuit was filed, all three of the religious organizations as well as many others, have been told by government officials that they are not eligible for FEMA aid.  

President Donald Trump has even chimed in on the side of the religious organizations via Twitter. 

Several members of Congress have also revived legislation - first proposed back in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy -- that would require FEMA to pay for storm repairs at places of worship.

According to legal analysts, the case centers on questions like: Does providing such aid violate the First Amendment separation of church and state? Or is it an infringement on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion to deny churches the same aid available to numerous other nonprofit organizations, such as libraries, zoos, and homeless shelters?

"It seems like the only reason churches are excluded is because they're churches, and it just seems discriminatory to me," Bruce Frazier, pastor of Rockport First Assembly of God Church, told The Associated Press

When Harvey roared through Texas in August, it blew down the steeple of Frazier's church, ripped away the front doors and took off the roof, causing extensive water damage. The church applied for disaster aid but was told instead to use private insurance coverage and try the Small Business Administration for a loan.

Frazier said the church of about 125 members couldn't afford wind-storm insurance and can't even afford the loan payments that would be necessary to fully rebuild.

"We're just asking to get help," he said. "I mean, we're struggling."

Religious groups can directly receive some help from the government when disaster strikes. When churches shelter evacuees, they can file with local governments to be reimbursed. They can also receive U.S. Small Business Administration loans to pay for the repair of their buildings. 

Grants are also available to religiously-affiliated schools, health care providers, and nursing homes.

FEMA also can provide the funding necessary to repair church-run facilities that act as local community centers.  However, only if less than half the space of the building is used for religious purposes.

According to an AP analysis, since 2012, FEMA has approved a net $113 million for the repair of 500 religious schools, medical clinics, and community centers after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other disasters.

However, FEMA hasn't supplied funding to repair church sanctuaries. The "50 percent rule" excludes many other types of church facilities.

"It is the faith community that responds so robustly to the need. And then to say, 'Tough luck, we're not going to help you put your own facility back together,' is wrong," said Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican sponsoring the bill that would change the policy.

But some have constitutional concerns, arguing that it would mean the establishment of religion if the government built a house of worship. 

FEMA declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. But in a court filing, the U.S. Justice Department said the challenged policies are being reconsidered.

A ruling in the case is expected next month. 


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