UPDATES DONATE

Newsroom

Churches Affected By Hurricanes Banned From Receiving Federal Aid

First Liberty asks FEMA to remove unconstitutional ban on federal disaster relief for religious institutions.

Share:
September 21, 2017

Three churches represented by First Liberty Institute are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to revoke a directive that bans religious institutions from receiving disaster relief.

Among the hundreds of affected communities along the Gulf Coast, Church on the Rock Katy, Grace Community Church in Houston, and Trinity Church in Beaumont, TX have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey. But even though they are in counties eligible for federal assistance, a leftover FEMA directive that continued through the Obama era prohibits them from applying for disaster relief and aid.

First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the White House asking the Trump Administration to end a discriminatory FEMA directive that makes churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, or other houses of worship in Texas and Florida ineligible for FEMA relief. First Liberty’s letter to FEMA requested that the directive be rescinded by September 25, 2017, so that these churches can get back on their feet and better help their local communities.

“This is a discriminatory policy started in the past and continued through the Obama administration,” said Chelsey Youman, Counsel for First Liberty. “The same religious institutions that are tirelessly serving their communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma are being told by the federal government they don’t deserve the nation’s help.”

The issue was addressed in a Facebook Live broadcast of a press conference from Katy, TX on Wednesday with First Liberty clients and attorneys.


CHURCHES PROVIDE VITAL ASSISTANCE AFTER DISASTERS

During the record-breaking flooding caused by Harvey, over 17,000 people needed rescuing. Thirty thousand people were displaced. Seventy-one people died, and the region suffered an estimated $200 billion in economic loss.

In Florida, Irma left millions without electricity for days. Some areas were leveled from high winds or ruined by severe flooding. So far 34 deaths have been confirmed in the U.S. due to the historic hurricane.

Houses of worship in Texas and Florida — most having suffered storm-related damage themselves — immediately sprung into action. They became temporary shelters, provided comfort to those devastated by the storms, and served as distribution centers of basic supplies.

And their work is far from over.

“When disaster strikes, that’s when people turn to religion the most,” said First Liberty client, Pastor Jorge Cardenas of Church on the Rock in Katy, Texas. “The floodwaters didn’t stop at our church’s door and, just like the rest of Houston, it’s going to cost us thousands of dollars to rebuild. We need all the help we can get.”

As Secretary of Energy and former Texas governor Rick Perry said, “The faith-based community here is going to have a very, very big role in this going forward.” He continued, “This is going to be a really, really long recovery … so the faith-based community may play one of the most important roles in this, long-term.”

FEMA can not do what it does so well without the cooperation of faith-based non-profit organizations and churches,” said the Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

As evidence of the important role of faith-based organizations, FEMA administrator Brock Long has repeatedly asked concerned citizens to make donations to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD.org), the alliance of volunteer organizations that are helping FEMA channel disaster assistance into affected areas. About 75% of the organizations that are part of the alliance are faith-based.

To continue helping those displaced or harmed by the hurricanes, churches will need to begin accounting for their own losses, which are significant. At a time like this, disaster relief from FEMA could play a crucial role in helping churches recover quickly, and in turn, help others.

Watch this video of disastrous flooding of Grace Community Church, including extensive interior damage:


DIRECTIVE BANS RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS FROM FEMA AID

But there is a major problem. Even though First Liberty clients Church on the Rock Katy, Grace Community Church, and Trinity Church are in eligible declared-disaster counties, they cannot currently receive aid.

This is because of FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide. In April 2017, Obama-appointee Alex Amparo, FEMA’s Assistant Administrator of the Recovery Directorate, published a second edition, which retained the discriminatory ban on church applications for aid.

The PA Policy Guide misinterprets the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (“Stafford Act”). This Act contains a nondiscrimination clause that mandates the President must protect religious entities from discrimination when it comes to relief assistance.

But according to the PA Policy Guide, “[f]acilities established or primarily used for … religious … activities are not eligible” for FEMA aid. First Liberty contends that this ban on aid for houses of worship and religious nonprofits is at odds with the Stafford Act, based on no authority, and is unconstitutional.


THAT’S UNCONSTITUTIONAL … AND THE SUPREME COURT AGREES

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Missouri in a major victory for religious freedom. Trinity Lutheran had applied for a certain state program for which it was completely eligible. But its application was denied, simply because it was a religious organization.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court recognized that this was a serious violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. It was wrong for the state of Missouri to insist that Trinity Lutheran abandon its religious nature in order to benefit from a state program.

Likewise, argues First Liberty, it is unconstitutional for FEMA to essentially declare that churches must abandon their religious nature in order to receive disaster relief.

President Trump has even spoken out in support of the churches affected by Harvey. He tweeted after the storm, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement [from] FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”


FIRST LIBERTY SENDS LETTER TO FEMA

On Wednesday, First Liberty attorneys sent a letter to FEMA pointing out that fixing this problem would be simple.

Specifically, First Liberty asked FEMA to:

  • Amend the PA Policy Guide to clarify that religious private nonprofit organizations are entitled to apply for and receive Public Assistance on an equal basis as non-religious private nonprofit organizations;
  • Publicly acknowledge that even though Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy, and Grace Community Church are religious private nonprofit organizations, they are entitled to apply for and receive Public Assistance on an equal basis as nonreligious private nonprofit organizations; and,
  • Provide a 30-day extension from the date of the revised PA Policy’s publication for eligible religious private nonprofit organizations to apply for Public Assistance for relief from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

First Liberty asked for FEMA’s expedited response by 10 am on September 25 due to the impending deadline to apply for public assistance.

 

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.