Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency

Becket Role:
Counsel

Scoreboard

Decision:
Dismissed
Decision Date:
January 31, 2018
Deciding Court:
Resolved outside of court

Case Snapshot

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, houses of worship across Texas opened their doors and welcomed thousands of families forced to evacuate their homes. Yet, at the same time they were opening their doors to the community, they were picking up the pieces of their own devastated buildings. 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. But FEMA refused to grant houses of worship equal access to disaster relief aid—a discriminatory denial based solely on their religious status. In January 2018, following a lawsuit brought by Becket on behalf of 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 equal footing with other non-profit groups. FEMA also opened up a new application window for houses of worship that had previously been denied aid under its old policy, including two synagogues in Florida that also sued FEMA due to damage they sustained by Hurricane Irma.

Status

On January 3, 2018, following a lawsuit brought by Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God that went all the way to the Supreme Court, FEMA formally changed its 20-year-old policy and allowed houses of worship nationwide to apply for aid on equal footing with other non-profit groups. The policy also applied to two synagogues in Florida that sued FEMA following FEMA’s discriminatory refusal to allow them to apply for help with damage they sustained by Hurricane Irma.

Case Summary

Pillars of hope and help for disaster-stricken communities

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, houses of worship across 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 struck.

Yet at the same time they were opening their doors to the community, they were picking up the pieces to their own devastated buildings. 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.

Becket defends churches from FEMA discrimination

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 2017 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.

In September of 2017, Becket filed a lawsuit on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God. 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 December 2017, the district court ruled against the churches. That same day, the churches filed an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit, which granted an expedited appeal but not emergency protection.

Victory: Supreme Court urges a new FEMA policy

Becket then filed an emergency request with Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court Justice who hears emergency petitions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, to grant emergency relief to avoid further delay in allowing the churches to apply for help. The Supreme Court responded by asking FEMA to explain its discrimination against houses of worship by January 10, 2018.

The pressure from the Court’s request allowed the churches to celebrate a complete victory for houses of worship nationwide: On January 3, FEMA quickly published a new policy and announced the change before the January 10 deadline. The new policy gave the churches what they needed, putting an end to FEMA’s decades of discrimination against houses of worship. Since FEMA would now treat houses of worship like all other non-profit disaster relief applicants, the churches dismissed their lawsuit shortly after.

FEMA also opened up a new application window for houses of worship that had previously been denied aid under its old policy, including two synagogues in Florida represented by Becket that also sued FEMA due to damage they sustained by Hurricane Irma.

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.

Case Information

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
September 5, 2017
Deciding Court:
Resolved outside of court
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas
Practice Area(s):