Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency
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A pillar of hope and help
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, houses of worship and religious organizations across Houston, Texas opened their doors and welcomed thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. For local churches, synagogues, and mosques, this was nothing new. From housing and feeding evacuees to loading trucks with meals and hygiene supplies, houses of worship are pillars of safety, hope, and help when disaster strikes.
But disaster doesn’t discriminate, and houses of worship suffer the same kind of devastation that the rest of their communities do. 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. So at the same time that churches are springing into action, they’re also picking up the pieces.
Used but not helped
But while FEMA recognizes that houses of worship are essential partners in the recovery process, it bans them from receiving recovery grants that are available to other similar private nonprofits. These grants are available to rebuild and repair damaged buildings at a broad range of private nonprofit organizations, such as museums, zoos, and even community centers that provide services such as sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs. But churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are categorically denied because they use their buildings primarily for religious purposes. 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.
But it denies them equal access to emergency relief simply because they are religious. Even though they are essential to rebuilding communities. Even though they serve as staging areas for FEMA’s own relief efforts.
This discriminatory policy stands in defiance of a recent Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that 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 in Cypress, Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, and Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport in federal district court in Texas, arguing that churches should be allowed to apply for FEMA aid just like every other building. If a zoo can apply for FEMA funds, so too should churches, synagogues and mosques.
In November 2017, a hearing on the Churches’ motion for relief took place in Houston federal court. Days later, the judge rejected FEMA’s attempt to delay and set a December 1 deadline for FEMA to change its position before he issues a ruling.