Why Three Texas Churches Are in Court After Hurricane Harvey

By Victor Ochieng

On Wednesday, three Texas churches were in a federal court to challenge Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s policy that bars religious organizations from applying for their grants. The churches, like many others across the state of Texas among other places, lost enormous property as a result of Hurricane Harvey. They are, therefore, challenging the decision by FEMA to deny them disaster relief because of the simple reason that they’re religious organizations.

A ruling is expected in the Harvest Family Church v. FEMA case, with the court set to decide whether or not churches qualify for such disaster relief funds.

The three churches, Harvest Family Church, Rockport First Assembly of God and Hi-Way Tabernacle filed a joint lawsuit against FEMA in September this year after the organization denied them disaster aid. Over the past several weeks following the Hurricane Harvey devastation, many churches have turned to FEMA for support, but they’ve been turned down on the ground that they’re not eligible.

The churches, represented by Becket, were in a federal court in Houston, where they termed FEMA’s decision as discriminatory and against the First Amendment.

“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,” said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer at Becket, the nonprofit law firm representing the three aggrieved Texas churches. “A natural disaster should be no different. These three churches helped their communities without discrimination, and FEMA should do the same.”

To put things into perspective, houses of worship became among the first places that offered safe abode for Hurricane Harvey victims. In fact, they still continue to provide support to the communities in which they’re situated, including helping to build. The question one would ask, therefore, is: Why would FEMA use the churches and other places of worship as relief staging grounds yet deny them any support in the face of disaster? That policy might just well be a violation of a Supreme Court declaration in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. In the decision, the Supreme Court made it clear that religious organizations should be allowed to be part of the widely available programs on the same grounds as secular ones.

“Our message to FEMA is this: Don’t mess with Texas churches,” said Blomberg. “FEMA has senselessly excluded churches long enough. We hope the Court will quickly put an end to FEMA’s discriminatory policy.”

The hearing in the Texas churches case was in Houston federal court, with the ruling expected in December.