Three small Texas churches damaged by Harvey are challenging a FEMA policy that bans them from applying to its relief program “simply because they are religious.” According to Becket, the non-profit religious liberty law firm, FEMA’s policy violates the Constitution, as the Supreme Court recently ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran protecting the right of religious organizations to participate in generally available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.
Becket’s complaint further states that the Constitution does not allow this exclusionary policy to continue. Under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment — particularly as interpreted by the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church — government may not discriminate against a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque simply because of its status as a place of religious teaching and worship. That was actually the ruling that said Missouri couldn’t exclude churches from a taxpayer-funded grant if the purpose of the funding was secular, like renovating a playground.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s primary purpose is to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the United States and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. The agency also provides state and local governments with experts in specialized fields and funding for rebuilding efforts and relief funds for infrastructure by directing individuals to access low interest loans, in conjunction with the Small Business Administration.
The churches say not allowing them to apply for disaster relief grants is unfair discrimination. “After the costliest and most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, the government should come to the aid of all, not leave important parts of the community underwater,” said Diana Verm, counsel at Becket. “Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick whom it helps.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency certainly doesn’t cherry-pick because rules that define who can or can’t apply for grant money were already decided long ago. FEMA doesn’t give money to religious organizations to avoid any excessive entanglement between church and state. Once they make an exception, they will be expected to change the rules each time some religious institution needs money. It would be the same as those churches now cite the Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church.
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