January 2018 Church & State | People & Events

A federal court on Dec. 7 denied an emergency request from three Texas churches seeking access to federal disaster funding to rebuild sanctuaries damaged during Hurricane Harvey.

The churches – Harvest Family Church in Cypress, First Assembly of God in Rockport and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland – sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Sept. 4, demanding taxpayer aid to help them rebuild sanctuaries, a fellowship hall, a steeple, pastoral offices and a parsonage.

Like most nonprofit organizations and businesses, houses of worship are already eligible for government reimbursement for the non-religious em­ergency services they provide to aid their communities in disaster recovery. They are also eligible for government loans to rebuild after a storm.

But the churches assert they should also have access to a limited pool of government grants for rebuilding, which FEMA policy makes available only to nonprofit organizations that provide emergency or essential, government-like services to the general public.

Americans United and allies filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Nov. 30 urging the court to rule that the First Amendment’s religious freedom provisions don’t compel FEMA to help reconstruct houses of worship, in part because such grants would violate sep­aration of church and state.

The court refused to grant the churches’ request for a temporary injunction that would have allowed them to apply the grants while the lawsuit, Harvest Family Church v. FEMA, proceeds.

“The Court correctly recognized that the Constitution does not require the government to grant churches tax dollars to rebuild their places of worship,” AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told the Houston Chronicle. “This ruling protects the freedom of conscience of taxpayers by ensuring that they do not have to subsidize religions to which they do not subscribe. It also protects the religious freedom of churches, because governmental funding can result in improper governmental interference in religious matters.”

The churches, represented by the conservative Christian legal group Becket, appealed the court’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. AU and allies again filed a brief on Dec. 8 urging the court to uphold FEMA’s current policy. The appeals court also refused to grant the injunction.

FEMA has indicated it is considering changes to its rule, potentially opening the door to more aid for houses of worship. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, urged President Donald Trump to expand the FEMA aid available to churches. Trump has tweeted, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

U.S. senators led by Texas Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn also have introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, a bill that would make houses of worship eligible for FEMA Public Assistance grants.