First Liberty Press Conference Regarding FEMA aid to Flood Ravaged Houses of Worship
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit the area of Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 hurricane. It later weakened into a tropical storm, but hovered over southeast Texas and Louisiana for days, releasing record-breaking rain and trapping over 17,000 people in dangerous floodwaters. Thousands of homes were destroyed and 30,000 individuals were displaced. The fierce storm also caused 71 deaths and an estimated $200 billion in economic loss.
Hurricane Irma hit Florida in early September of 2017, causing millions of homes, businesses and other entities to lose power for days. As with Harvey, many homes and other buildings were wiped out, and 34 U.S. deaths have been confirmed.
Despite suffering crippling damage along with others in the community, houses of worship in both Texas and Florida immediately began providing vital assistance to the people in their local communities.
And their work is far from over.
“This is going to be a really, really long recovery,” Secretary of Energy and former Texas governor Rick Perry said after Harvey. “So the faith-based community may play one of the most important roles in this, long-term. And that’s what they’ve historically done.”
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, President Donald Trump declared 39 Texas counties, including Harris and Jefferson Counties, to be disaster relief eligible. Twenty-one counties in Florida have also been cleared to receive FEMA assistance.
But there is a major problem. Even though First Liberty clients, Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy, and Grace Community Church were directly affected by Hurricane Harvey, they are ineligible to receive aid purely because they are churches.
This is because of FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide. The PA Policy is not new, and has been re-issued under previous administrations, including published under President Obama’s FEMA Administrator.
The PA Policy Guide misinterprets the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (“Stafford Act”), which mandates that 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. This ban on aid for religious entities is at odds with the Stafford Act, based on zero authority and is in fact unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court dealt with this very issue earlier in 2017.
In Trinity Lutheran of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, the Court sided with a Missouri church that had applied for assistance under a certain state program. Even though the church met all the necessary qualifications to receive the requested assistance, it was denied for being a religious entity.
The Supreme Court found in favor of the church, holding that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment protects religious observers against unequal treatment by the government.
As in the case of Trinity Lutheran, Texas and Florida churches would have to give up their religious character in order to benefit from a public program, for which they are otherwise qualified, and from which their nonreligious neighbors are benefiting.
On September 20, 2017, First Liberty Institute sent a letter to FEMA administrator William B. “Brock” Long on behalf of their clients, Trinity Church, Church on the Rock Katy, and Grace Community Church.
In the letter, First Liberty points out that the portion of the PA Policy Guide banning churches from assistance not only runs contrary to the Constitution and the Stafford Act, but to President Donald Trump’s own words and actions.
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, President Trump publicly declared that churches and religious organizations should be entitled to disaster relief on equal terms as non-religious organizations. And with the stroke of a pen, the Trump administration can make this a reality, providing much-needed disaster relief to hundreds of religious organizations—who themselves continue to provide relief to tens of thousands of affected citizens throughout Texas and Florida.
In May 2017, President Trump signed the Executive Order Protecting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. The order asserts that “[i]t shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” It also enables the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty in Federal law.”
First Liberty is asking FEMA to fulfill the President’s promises to protect religious freedom at the federal level. Specifically, First Liberty asks that FEMA:
First Liberty requested FEMA make these corrections by September 25, 2017.
For Immediate Release: September 20, 2017
Contact: Lacey McNiel, firstname.lastname@example.org
First Liberty to White House: End FEMA Relief Discrimination
Against Houses of Worship
Letter asks Trump administration to extend federal aid to hurricane-affected churches.
HOUSTON, Texas—Today, 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 following recent devastating hurricanes.
“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.”
President Trump has voiced support for hurricane-affected churches seeking FEMA relief.
“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.”
First Liberty also represents Grace Community Church in Houston, Texas and Trinity Church in Beaumont, Texas.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (“Stafford Act”) mandates that the president protect religious institutions from discrimination in granting disaster relief assistance. Yet, FEMA maintains a memo originating before President Trump took office, stating that any building using more than half of its space for religious programming should be ineligible for FEMA relief. Congress and members of the U.S. Senate have introduced legislation that may provide additional protections for houses of worship within the Stafford Act, but, given the short timeframe to apply for and receive FEMA assistance following a national disaster any legislative initiative may be too late.
First Liberty is asking the Trump administration to remove the discriminatory directive and direct FEMA to extend disaster relief aid to all religious nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, in compliance with the Stafford Act.
“We appreciate President Trump’s efforts to bolster religious liberty and implement practical solutions,” Youman says, “And we hope our letter is helpful to the administration as it dismantles Obama era policies.”
To read First Liberty’s letter to the White House, click here.
To read more and view legal documents, visit our case page.
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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at email@example.com or by calling 972-941-4453.
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