North America

Religious believers call for change in FEMA policy to include churches

A Roman Catholic and a Jewish group have submitted friend-of-the-court briefs siding with three evangelical churches suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA) in a bid to change policy that bans disaster aid from reaching religious institutions.

According to a Christian Post story, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and the Congregation Torah Vachesed synagogue of Houston have both spoken out in the Harvest Family Church versus FEMA case, the nonprofit law firm Becket announced this week.

“Hard-hit houses of worship shouldn’t be denied a place at the table just because FEMA thinks they’re ‘too religious,'” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket. “FEMA should drop its phobia of religion and get back to focusing on helping communities rebuild.”

The law firm noted that the latest amicus briefs highlight “FEMAs’s unfairness in discriminating against churches while using them as staging grounds for its relief efforts.”

Senator Ted Cruz with colleagues is introducing new legislation to include churches. Credit: US Congress

The Catholic archdiocese pointed out in its brief that FEMA’s policy is “especially unfair,” given that many houses of worship are often at the “very forefront” of providing “immediate aid to persons in need, regardless of faith, in the aftermath of serious tropic storms and other natural disasters.”

Similarly, the Jewish congregation noted that Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston at the end of August, was “particularly unforgiving” to the city’s Jewish community.

“Despite this, Jewish institutions have been greatly involved in relief efforts throughout Houston. FEMA’s policy against funding otherwise qualifying religious institutions, however, would deny these same institutions equal access to public assistance to repair flood damage,” Congregation Torah Vachesed wrote.

The evangelical Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God filed the lawsuit last month against FEMA’s policy that blocks churches and other places of worship from receiving aid, on the grounds of the separation of church and state.

Secular groups, such as the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, have said that FEMA’s policy should remain as is.

“The government can help many individuals and nonprofits rebuild, but not churches. It is a founding principal of our nation that citizens may not be taxed in support of religion and churches,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor argued.

Becket has claimed that FEMA’s policy violates the Constitution, however.

“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,” the group said.

Four Republican senators put forth a new bill in September aimed at changing FEMA’s policy to give houses of worship equal access as other nonprofits in applying for disaster relief.

Senators Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Cornyn (Texas), Ted Cruz (Texas) and James Lankford (Okla.) introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which they said would provide vital support for churches during natural disasters.

“These religious institutions are central to our communities, provide vital services for our friends and neighbors, and are often the first to open their doors during a devastating crisis offering aid to those in need. I encourage my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this important legislation so that we can swiftly enact this bill into law,” Cruz said in a statement at the time.