November 2017 Church & State - November 2017

Texas Churches Sue FEMA For Tax Aid In Wake Of Hurricane

  AU admin

Three Texas churches are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), demanding taxpayer aid to help them rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The conservative legal group the Becket Fund on Sept. 4 filed a federal lawsuit, Harvest Family Church v. Federal Emergency Management Agency, on behalf of Rockport First Assembly of God, Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabe­rnacle in Cleveland. The suit calls for federal aid to rebuild a church steeple and restore flooded church sanctuaries.

To protect the constitutional principle of religious freedom by ensuring taxpayers aren’t compelled to pay for religious entities they don’t support, there are limits on government money being used to fund houses of worship.

AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog that disaster aid is available for houses of worship in certain cases. For example, houses of worship can be reimbursed for emergency services they provide to local governments, such as serving as shelters for people displaced by disasters. They also are eligible for government loans to rebuild after a storm, as are most nonprofits and businesses.

They’re not usually eligible for direct government grants, however. In fact, most nonprofits aren’t eligible for these grants – only those that perform emergency, essential and government-related activities and are open to the general public are eligible. These grants are not available to most, let alone all, businesses, nonprofits, private residences and other buildings.

“The government is not in the business of building churches, synagogues and mosques – even after a terrible disaster,” Garrett wrote. “That is at the core of the First Amendment, and we must stand by it in good times and in bad.”

That logic didn’t stop politicians from weighing in. Days after the lawsuit was filed, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”

About two weeks later, U.S. senators led by Texas Republicans Ted Cruz and John Cornyn introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, a bill that would make houses of worship eligible for FEMA Public Assistance grants. Then Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both Republicans, sent a letter to Trump requesting that churches be made eligible for more FEMA aid.

The letter insists the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer should pave the way for houses of worship to be eligible for more FEMA funding. AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser explained to The Washington Post that the politicians are misinterpreting the Trinity decision.

Luchenitser noted that the decision allowed a Missouri church to get funding for a nonreligious purpose (playground improvements), whereas the Texas churches are seeking money for “core facility” repairs that will support religious activity.

“We know a lot of people in Texas are suffering, and we are sympathetic,” Luchenitser said. “But the fact that something bad has happened does not justify a second wrong. … Taxpayers should not be forced to protect religious institutions that they don’t subscribe to.”

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