By Victor Ochieng
Several Texas churches have come out demanding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) give them emergency support, following the damages caused to their property by Hurricane Harvey. Basing their arguments on existing FEMA policies, many organizations, including FEMA, dismissed the churches, saying religious organizations aren’t eligible for the agency’s funding.
However, it appears President Donald Trump isn’t happy with the policy, considering that many of the Texas churches have been very instrumental in saving lives and providing a safe abode for hurricane victims. In a recent tweet, the President said, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
The tweet came on the heels of a lawsuit filed by three Texas churches, in which they stated that they’d like to submit their applications for the funding, but believe it would be an act in futility, considering that FEMA’s program “categorically” omits religious institutions, a policy they believe violates their constitutional right to free exercise of their religion.
The churches said FEMA’s ban on issuing relief in a case where at least half of the space of the building in question is used for religious reasons, a policy that the body implemented both after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is going against the spirit of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for religious entities to receive public aid.
According to Becket, a nonprofit that agitates on religious freedoms and is representing the churches in the case said the same Supreme Court ruling should apply in the case of the Federal FEMA relief for the current Harvey victims.
“The principle is that governments can’t discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here,” Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a recent interview.
Efforts to secure a comment from FEMA went futile, with a spokeswoman for the agency saying in an email response that it was inappropriate to discuss a matter that’s currently in court.
The three churches that filed the lawsuit are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, having lost its roof and steeple among other structural damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey; and Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, the two of which were flooded.