Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Churches, synagogues join fight against FEMA faith bias

First Amendment | Catholic and Jewish leaders file legal briefs arguing that the government should not exclude religious facilities from disaster relief aid
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 10/10/17, 02:54 pm

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.

First Liberty First Liberty Col. Leland B.H. Bohannon and his family

Air Force punishes colonel over marriage views

U.S. Air Force officials have suspended a decorated officer and revoked his recommendation for promotion to brigadier general because he would not sign an unofficial document affirming a retiring subordinate’s same-sex marriage. 

Col. Leland B.H. Bohannon, Air Force Inspection Agency commander at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., signed all the requisite documents for a senior noncommissioned service member’s May retirement ceremony except for one: a letter of “spousal appreciation” for the gay serviceman’s partner. Bohannon’s Christian convictions about marriage put him at odds with the request to sign the unofficial, optional letter, and he sought counsel from his chaplain and judge advocate general. While awaiting guidance, and with the retirement ceremony days away, Bohannon asked a two-star general who did not object to sign the document instead.

But the retiring serviceman filed a complaint, alleging Bohannon discriminated against him based on his sexual orientation. An investigation substantiated the claim and found Bohannon guilty of unlawful discrimination, according to attorneys with First Liberty.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, First Liberty attorneys requested a reversal of the findings and penalties against Bohannon in order to forestall a lawsuit. —B.P.

YouTube YouTube Students at the College of William and Mary protest an ACLU attorney invited to talk about free speech.

Free to yell but not to speak

Students from the College of William and Mary’s Black Lives Matter organization shouted down an American Civil Liberties Union attorney invited on campus to discuss free speech rights. Instead of rebuking the protesters, a school administrator handed them a microphone.

Before Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, could begin her Sept. 27 address, students with Black Lives Matter took the stage. Gastanaga congratulated them for their enthusiastic demonstration of free expression and informed them she planned to hold a question-and-answer session after her talk.

Not content to participate in civil discourse, the mob began to shout chants like “ACLU, you protect Hitler too,” until a school official ceded the stage. After one student read a prepared speech excoriating the ACLU for its defense of white nationalists’ right to demonstrate and speak in Charlottesville, Va., the protesters resumed their shouting.

Administrators eventually canceled Gastanaga’s speech. Afterward, some students tried to talk to her, but the screaming mob surrounded them and drowned out any post-protest discussion. —B.P.

On to the next round

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along party lines last week to advance the nomination of Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Her nomination now heads to the full Senate. During her confirmation hearing, questions about Barrett’s Catholic faith from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., alarmed religious liberty advocates who said they skirted dangerously close to establishing a religious litmus test. —B.P.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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  • Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Mon, 10/16/2017 07:34 pm

    As Christians we are all citizens of this great country.  Any discrimination against us is a denial that America is a representative democracy.  Therefore, we should be allowed into the public square: we should be given funds from the government for disaster relief.  Otherwise, we are not Americans.  The argument that we should be denied our place within society because of some kind of "magic" that influences others is not rational.  As a teenager I was seduced into a anarchy.  I loved the music, the clothes, the "freedom," the punk rock shows. 

    Any political movement will have ways to influence the community to join it.  What is unique about Christianity is its work as a power of good within the community.  This is especially true when we have disasters such a floods, fires and earthquakes.  When such tragedies hit communities, there is a Christian movement among those who've lost so much.  They are sustained by their faith as they see that what has happened to them is only ephemeral.  There is a greater place that is above and that is eternal.