Texas Churches Are Suing FEMA for Excluding Them in Disaster Relief Grants

Three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over their ineligibility when applying for disaster relief grants. FEMA doesn’t give money to religious organizations to avoid any excessive entanglement between church and state, but the churches say that’s unfair discrimination.

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What’s especially interesting about this case is how the plaintiffs, aided by conservative lawyers at Becket, are citing the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer to bolster their case, making it the first time we’ve seen that ruling used for a larger purpose.

That was the ruling that said Missouri couldn’t exclude churches from a taxpayer-funded grant if the purpose of the funding was secular, like renovating a playground.

Diana Verm, an attorney with Becket, was referring to that case when she said, “Hurricane Harvey didn’t cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn’t cherry-pick who it helps.” But FEMA’s not cherry-picking at all. Not everyone gets to apply for grant money. It’s that simple. The rules were decided in advance. It didn’t seem to matter to these churches until they wanted a piece of the available cash.

Using Trinity as a starting point here also seems to stretch the limits of that decision. Five of the justices who ruled in favor of the Missouri church made clear the ruling applied only in cases like a church playground, where the benefits were secular.

We haven’t seen that decision applied at the federal level, but the FEMA case isn’t a natural consequence of Trinity. It’s ridiculous for anyone to argue taxpayers should fund the rebuilding of churches — which would obviously benefit religion — when no one would ask taxpayers to fund the building of those churches in the first place.

Becket tries to distract people from this issue by citing examples of groups that get money despite offering supposedly useless things:

FEMA has repeatedly denied disaster assistance funds to countless houses of worship in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, including a Jewish Chabad, a homeless shelter church ministry, and a Unitarian Universalist church. At the same time, FEMA gave aid to an octopus research center, a botanical garden, and community centers that provide sewing classes and stamp-collecting clubs.

We hear this kind of pathetic argument from conservatives all the time. Like when they criticize taxpayer-funded research they don’t understand. They throw certain groups under the bus by saying, “They don’t do anything important! But we do! So give us money!” In those cases, they play dumb as to what’s actually being studied. In this case, they ignore how the research center, botanical garden, and community centers are open to everyone regardless of religious beliefs. They don’t discriminate.

It’s irrelevant that these churches assisted in disaster relief. Paying for their churches would go directly toward helping them proselytize and hold worship services. It’s not enough that their buildings were destroyed; now the churches want to tear down the wall between church and state. That’s why this lawsuit should go nowhere. It’s apples and oranges when compared to Trinity.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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