Houston-area Catholic and Jewish congregations have filed legal briefs in support of three churches suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for denying disaster relief funds because of their religious identity. The churches—two non-denominational and one Assemblies of God—are united in their fight against religious discrimination that could spell financial ruin for congregations across the storm-ravaged United States.
During and after the hurricanes that have plagued the country and its territories since August, first responders included congregants from churches and synagogues. Their damaged houses of worship served as FEMA command stations. And while happy to take advantage of those congregations’ hospitality, FEMA policy since 1998 forbids the agency from providing them grants to repair their buildings.
One caveat to FEMA’s religious use ban is its “mixed-use” policy, which offers emergency funding only if religious functions do not exceed 50 percent of a facility’s usage. Such an arrangement is untenable for Jews and Catholics mindful of the government’s historic discrimination against them, attorneys said in their friends of the court briefs.
“In order for FEMA to determine whether a Jewish 501(c)(3) is too religious—or in this case, too Jewish—to qualify for hurricane assistance, the government must wade deeply into what constitutes the Jewish faith. … This type of religious line-drawing impermissibly entangles the government with religion,” argued attorneys for Jews for Religious Liberty and Congregation Torah Vachesed. “This policy requires that FEMA discriminate against any facility deemed too Jewish either in purpose or practice.”
Houses of worship, along with other non-profit groups, also can apply for FEMA’s Emergency Work and Permanent Work Public Assistance programs but only after applying for a Small Business Administration low-interest loan—a prohibitively large financial commitment for some congregations.
“These churches are already living paycheck to paycheck, so to speak, and have little margin,” Kenneth Priest, strategies director for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, told me. “Many of the churches are in low income areas [and] provide a great community service of ministering to the needs in their community.”
Without these churches, the burden of providing aid would shift to the government, or the people would do without.
Churches know they must look to each other for aid, as they always have. But for those just one financial crisis away from closing their doors, a FEMA grant could help purchase drywall, lumber, and other supplies a volunteer crew could use to make essential repairs, Priest said.
The Catholic, Jewish, non-denominational, and Pentecostal congregations argue the faith that compels them to render aid should not be used against them. If not for their faith, these houses of worship would qualify for FEMA grants. Diana Verm, an attorney from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty working on the case, noted the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer should have resolved the problem of faith-based discrimination in government grant programs.
FEMA responded to the lawsuit by claiming the plaintiffs—all churches with significant structural damage, one of which FEMA used after the storm—do not have standing to sue because they haven’t yet had their applications denied.
Regardless of FEMA’s discrimination, congregations in Texas and Florida will continue to serve their communities, wrote Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston; Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston; Thomas Wenski, archbishop of Miami; and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue.
“We will feed the hungry, care for the orphan and elder, shelter the homeless, and welcome the immigrant,” the faith leaders declared in an opinion piece for USA Today.