The three churches in Texas that sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seeking taxpayer money for their disaster relief efforts have lost the first round of their court case.
The churches sued FEMA after Hurricane Harvey, challenging the government organization’s longstanding policy of withholding money from religious groups to avoid any excessive entanglement between church and state, and that case will still be heard. But a judge in Houston just denied the plaintiff churches’ request for emergency access to funds, saying they can’t get the money up front only to have to prove they’re entitled to it in court.
U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller denied the churches’ motion Thursday for a temporary injunction to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.
The case will proceed to trial on the question of whether nonprofit religious organizations can use federal money to rebuild church sanctuaries. The churches’ argument relies on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that found the Missouri state government could not deny funds to a church group that applied for federal community grants to improve a playground.
These temporary injunctions are often granted in cases where the evidence weighs in favor of the applicant, so this is a good sign. But it’s only a small step, because this will now have the play out in court, and the judge will decide if churches that don’t pay taxes should get taxpayer money to rebuild.
Currently, the Stafford Act allowing the federal government to fund natural disaster recovery projects excludes religious facilities.
One of the church’s lawyers, however, compared the decision to uphold the law until the court can hear arguments to “the Grinch who stole Christmas.”
“FEMA is turning into the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. By continuing to discriminate against churches, FEMA is sending the message that churches are not full members of the community, even when they are in fact the beating heart of disaster recovery in Texas and elsewhere. We will appeal today’s ruling in favor of FEMA to the Fifth Circuit,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Council with Becket. The Washington D.C. firm, “defends religious liberty for all — in principal and in practice.”
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, hailed the decision. That group filed a brief in court supporting FEMA’s current policies.
“The Court correctly recognized that the Constitution does not require the government to grant churches tax dollars to rebuild their places of worship,” Luchenitser said. “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.”
He added, “It also protects the religious freedom of churches, because governmental funding can result in improper governmental interference in religious matters.”
This last part can’t be stressed enough. I know a lot of religious people who believe church and state should be separate, because taking funds from the government will always come with some sort of control. If these churches want to be all about God and scripture, then they should stop seeking government sponsorship.
Regardless, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. This decision just means we will hear more about this case as the trial continues, so let’s keep our eyes on the prize. If we allow taxpayer funds to flow to these religious groups, it could set a dangerous precedent for the future.
(Image via Shutterstock)