Chabad of Key West v. FEMA
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’s long-time policy denied them access to disaster relief simply because they are houses of worship. In January 2018, however, this discriminatory policy ended. Following lawsuits by synagogues and churches represented by Becket, FEMA changed its policy, and weeks later Congress passed a law that ensures houses of worship are treated equally alongside other nonprofit organizations applying for disaster aid.
Share this Case
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 for many years, its policy made 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, FEMA’s policy denied houses of worship relief funds solely because they are religious.
This meant synagogues like the Chabad of Key West and the Chabad of the Space Coast, which suffered serious wind and water damage during hurricane Irma, were left out in the cold. Despite pitching in to help their neighbors in recovery efforts, the synagogues didn’t know how they were going to repair their own facilities.
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, pointing out that FEMA’s discriminatory policy was a violation of the First Amendment, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s 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.
In January of 2018, responding to pressure from litigation, FEMA changed its policy, putting an end to decades of discrimination against houses of worship. On February 9, 2018, Congress passed a bill and the President signed into law a bill that codified FEMA’s policy, ensuring that Chabad of Key West, Chabad of the Space Coast, and other houses of worship will be treated equally alongside other charitable organizations in the future. Since FEMA began treating the synagogues like all other disaster relief applicants, they were able to dismiss their lawsuit on February 13, 2018.
Becket also filed a similar lawsuit in Houston, Texas in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. It can, and should, have an equal place in the public square.
- Reinforcing precedent set by Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley: In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the state of Missouri can’t prevent a religious school from participating in a publicly available program that provides shredded-tire resurfacing to make playgrounds safer for kids on equal footing with other schools.