Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency
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After going all the way to the Supreme Court, three disaster-damaged churches defeated a decades-old federal rule that unfairly banned disaster relief aid for houses of worship just because they were houses of worship.
A pillar of hope and help
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, houses of worship across Houston, Texas opened their doors and welcomed thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. From housing and feeding evacuees to loading trucks with meals and hygiene supplies, local churches, synagogues, and mosques were pillars of safety, hope, and help when disaster strikes.
Yet at the same time they were opening their doors to the community, they were picking up the pieces to their own devastated buildings. Houston-area houses of worship like Harvest Family Church and Hi-Way Tabernacle suffered unprecedented flooding, and churches along the Gulf Coast like Rockport First Assembly had their steeples blown off and windows blown out. Yet FEMA refused to grant these churches equal access disaster relief aid—a discriminatory denial based solely on their religious status. But in January 2018, following a lawsuit brought by these churches that went all the way to the Supreme Court, FEMA formally changed its 20-year-old policy and once again allowed houses of worship to apply for aid on equally footing with other non-profit groups.
Used but not helped
FEMA has repeatedly praised churches and religious ministries for the valuable shelter and aid they provide to disaster-stricken communities, and regularly uses houses of worship as staging areas for relief efforts.
Yet FEMA banned houses of worship from receiving recovery grants that are available to other similar private nonprofits, such as museums, zoos, and even community centers that provide services such as sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.
This discriminatory policy stood in defiance of a recent Supreme Court 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 steps in
In September of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God, arguing that churches should be allowed to apply for FEMA aid just like every other disaster-damaged group. Because the churches were badly damaged and struggling to recover from the hurricane, Becket filed an emergency request for the court to quickly grant equal access to relief.
In early November 2017, the court held a hearing on the churches’ emergency request. Days later, the judge rejected FEMA’s attempt to delay changing its policy. But on December 7th, the court ruled against the churches. That same day, the churches filed an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit granted an expedited appeal but not emergency protection.
Becket then filed an emergency request with Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court Justice who hears emergency petitions from the Fifth Circuit, to grant emergency relief in hopes that the churches wouldn’t have to wait months more for the emergency help they need. Justice Alito ordered FEMA to explain its discrimination against houses of worship, giving FEMA a January 10 deadline to respond.
The pressure from Justice Alito’s order allowed the churches to ring in the New Year with a complete victory for houses of worship nationwide: FEMA acted quickly to publish a new policy before the January 10 deadline, announcing the change to Justice Alito on January 3, 2018. The new policy gave the churches what they asked for, putting an end to FEMA’s decades of discrimination against houses of worship.
FEMA also opened up a new application window for houses of worship that had been denied aid the previous fall under its old policy. This new window was welcome news to many, including two synagogues in Florida that had been damaged by Hurricane Irma, and which Becket also represented in a lawsuit against FEMA.