Missouri Family E-News

September 19, 2017

                
Churches Hit by Hurricane Seek Equal Treatment  

Three Texas churches have filed suit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency for denying them disaster assistance funding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
 
Two Houston-area churches and one located near Corpus Christi filed the litigation in the U.S. District Court for Southern Texas.  They claim they were discriminated against in the distribution of disaster relief funds because of their religious mission.
 
One of the churches, Hi-Way Tabernacle, was used during the hurricane as a shelter for dozens of evacuees, a warehouse for disaster relief supplies, a distribution center for thousands of meals, and a center for access to medical services.
 
"Hurricane Harvey didn't cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn't cherry-pick whom it helps," says Diana Verm, an attorney for the Becket Fund, which is representing the churches in federal court. 
 
"After the costliest and most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, the government should come to the aid of all, and start helping the helpers," Verm added.
 
The churches contend that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not permit government to exclude religious institutions from programs available to secular organizations merely because of their religious status.
 
The Becket Fund is pointing to a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri.
 
In that case, Trinity Lutheran Church had been denied a recycling grant for playground resurfacing by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.  DNR based their denial on a provision in Missouri's Constitution prohibiting direct government aid to houses of worship.
 
The Supreme Court ruled that the denial of "an otherwise available public benefit" because of an applicant's religious status violates the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.
 
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the "automatic and absolute exclusion" of a church from the benefits of a public program solely because of its religious character "punishes the free exercise of religion."
 
"We are not seeking special treatment, we are seeking a fair shake," the churches state in their complaint.  "We are asking this court to order FEMA to treat us on equal terms with other non-profit organizations in evaluating disaster relief applications."
 
Each of the churches sustained damage to roofs, walls, and windows, along with the cleanup and restoration from debris-laden floodwaters.
 
Even secular publications like USA Today recognize that "faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery efforts in coordination with FEMA."  USA Today estimated that at least 75% of the disaster assistance volunteers are from faith-based ministries.
 
The Becket Fund noted that disaster relief dollars had been awarded in liberal fashion to a botanical garden, an octopus research center, and a meeting place for a stamp-collectors club.
 
Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey has now introduced a bill in Congress which would amend the definition of a "private nonprofit facility" in federal emergency assistance law to explicitly include houses of worship.  
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Federal Court Nixes Order to License
Abortion Clinics

Ambitious efforts by Planned Parenthood to expand their abortion empire in Missouri received a surprise setback late last week in federal court.  The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked enforcement of a lower court decision that cleared the way for the opening of four new abortion clinics across the State of Missouri.
 
The federal appeals court has issued a stay of a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs in April.  That injunction prohibited enforcement of Missouri statutes establishing health and safety standards for abortion clinics.   
 
Judge Sachs determined that two provisions in Missouri abortion law were unconstitutional.  One required that abortion clinics meet the same operating standards as other ambulatory surgical centers.  The other required that doctors performing abortions have surgical privileges in at least one licensed hospital in the community.
 
The injunction issued by Judge Sachs came in response to a lawsuit filed by Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.  Attorneys for Planned Parenthood successfully argued that Missouri's abortion regulations were nearly identical to health and safety regulations in Texas struck down by the U.S Supreme Court last summer.
 
In that case, known as Whole Woman's Health vs. Hellerstedt, the High Court decided that the ambulatory surgical and hospital privileges requirements were "unnecessary health regulations [that] presented a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion."  Under previous abortion rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, a "substantial obstacle" is considered an "undue burden" on a woman's access to abortion, and is thus unconstitutional.
 
Judge Sachs cited the Hellerstedt decision in his April preliminary injunction, stating that Missouri's health and safety standards for abortion clinics were "arbitrary," and that "the abortion rights" of women were being denied "on a daily basis in irreparable fashion."
 
In early May, Judge Sachs went further, and issued a curt order to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS)  to expedite the issuance of abortion licenses to four new abortion clinics in Missouri.  Judge Sachs instructed DHSS officials to "promptly" process applications to Planned Parenthood Great Plains for clinics in Kansas City and Columbia, and to Planned Parenthood St. Louis for clinics in Springfield and Joplin.
 
Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley appealed the ruling by Judge Sachs to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to set aside the preliminary injunction until a formal hearing could be held by the appeals court.  A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit denied the request for a stay, but now the full cohort of judges on the 8th Circuit bench have overruled the panel, and blocked enforcement of the restraining order issued by Judge Sachs.  
Attorney General Hawley welcomed the sudden action by the full complement of 8th Circuit judges.  "I applaud the Eighth Circuit's decision.  The health and safety of Missouri women will now be protected while the Court considers the merits of our appeal."

What will happen now is unclear at this hour.  The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has already issued the operating license for the Kansas City clinic, and was on the verge of issuing the license for the Columbia facility.  Completed license applications for the Springfield and Joplin clinics have yet to be submitted.

The Administration of Governor Eric Greitens has taken a decidedly pro-life stance since he took office in January.  The new Director of DHSS, Dr. Randall Williams, has affirmed the medical legitimacy of Missouri's abortion regulations, and made clear that he will strictly enforce health and safety standards that have been overseen in lax fashion under previous administrations.

Missouri has for quite some time had only one continuously functioning abortion clinic located in the City of St. Louis--the Reproductive Health Services abortion mill operated by Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region in the city's Central West End.

Planned Parenthood has been unable to offer "abortion services" at its other affiliate locations across the state under Missouri's current law, because the facilities are not equipped to function as outpatient surgery centers, and because there are no doctors in those local communities willing to perform abortions.

You can read more about the history of Missouri's health and safety standards for abortion clinics in last week's Jeff City Update, which can be found in the archives on the Missouri Family Policy Council website at this link:

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