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.