Chabad of Key West v. FEMA

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
December 4, 2017
Current Court:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Case Summary

Faithful care in a time of crisis

In the devastating wake of Hurricane Irma, houses of worship in hard-hit parts of Florida helped their communities get back on their feet by providing food and supplies to their communities. Houses of worship are more than just buildings, they are places of refuge and help during natural disasters, yet FEMA is denying them access to disaster relief aid.

Synagogues like the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of the Space Coast suffered serious wind and water damage. But despite pitching in to help their neighbors, the Chabads don’t know how they are going to repair their own facilities.

Houses of worship need not apply

Following a natural disaster, FEMA provides disaster aid grants to nonprofits like zoos, homeless shelters, and stamp clubs, but makes it clear that houses of worship need not apply. Despite FEMA’s recognition that synagogues, mosques, and churches are essential partners in the recovery process, current FEMA policy denies houses of worship relief funds solely because they are religious.

FEMA’s discriminatory policy is a violation of the First Amendment, particularly as interpreted by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which protects the right of religious organizations to participate in widely available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

Becket defends equal treatment

In November of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of Space Coast in federal district court in Florida, arguing that synagogues and other houses of worship should be allowed to apply for FEMA aid just like every other nonprofit. If a zoo can apply for FEMA funds, so too should synagogues, churches and mosques be allowed to apply.

Becket has also filed a similar lawsuit in Houston, Texas in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA.