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Harvey Disaster

FEMA’s Disaster of a Public Assistance Program


After one devastating hurricane and another on the way, FEMA’s been a little busy. And from my perspective, the agency’s doing a pretty good job on the ground. But that doesn’t excuse the Federal Emergency Management Agency from responding to another crisis — this time on religious hostility. In the clean-up of Harvey, Houston churches are facing plenty of obstacles, including some outdated policy guidances. The agency, which had done its share of discriminating against religious groups after Katrina, corrected a lot of the problem when it opened up its small business loan program to churches. But unfortunately, there’s still a piece of the puzzle that puts faith-based groups at a disadvantage for aid: FEMA’s Public Assistance Program.

The problem started back in 1998, when the agency decided that it could exclude churches and other religious institutions from disaster relief money. Now, almost 20 years later, at least three churches are fighting to change that. With collapsed roofs and flooding, Texas’s Harvest Family, Rockport First Assembly of God, and Hi-Way Tabernacle are suing FEMA for the help they need to rebuild. “Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims,” said the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick who it helps.”

As far as we can tell, there’s never been a challenge (or at least a successful one) to this Public Assistance Program. But with Donald Trump in the White House and the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran case in the books, faith-based groups should have all the help they need to right FEMA’s wrong. Earlier this summer, when the justices ruled that Missouri couldn’t exclude a church from its tire grant program, they shut the door on religious tests for government funding. Thanks to that precedent, Becket attorneys are confident that that faith-based organizations will be just as eligible for other agency programs.

Both this situation and the Trinity Lutheran case feature churches providing services open to the public (in Trinity Lutheran the church had a playground for kids, and here the churches have been staging and shelter areas for the community during a disaster). Thus, based on Trinity Lutheran, the FEMA policy banning churches from Public Assistance is likely unconstitutional.

It is also inconsistent with the president’s position and actions on religious liberty. The president’s executive order issued in May calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue guidance for all federal agencies to respect and protect religious freedom should resolve this matter in favor of the churches. We are eagerly awaiting DOJ to follow the president’s lead and ensure a level playing field for all.


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