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FEMA Rethinking Aid to Churches Amidst Lawsuit

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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Three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey have filed a federal lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, putting more pressure on the organization’s stance on aiding damaged religious sanctuaries after natural disasters.

Details

The Associated Press reports that the lawsuit, which is backed by President Donald J. Trump, was heard in court last Tuesday (Nov.7). The churches are suing after they filed for FEMA disaster relief and were redirected to private insurance coverage and the Small Business Administration.

© iStock.com / MBCheatham

The churches are suing after they filed for FEMA disaster relief and were redirected to private insurance coverage and the Small Business Administration.

“It seems like the only reason churches are excluded is because they’re churches, and it just seems discriminatory to me,” said Bruce Frazier, pastor of Rockport First Assembly of God Church, which is part of the lawsuit. “We’re just asking to get help,” he said. “I mean, we’re struggling.”

At Frazier’s church, the steeple and front doors were ripped away, which then made way for water damage. He said that the congregation can’t afford insurance or the payments on a loan that would be necessary to make all the fixes.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and Congregation Torah Vachesed, a Houston-area synagogue, also filed briefs in support of the three churches that filed.

The basis of the suit points to help that FEMA has given religiously affiliated schools and community centers, but draws the line at the sanctuaries, which often step up the most in communities during a time of need.

Debate

While the lawsuit is happening, members of Congress have resurrected legislation that had originally been proposed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that would mandate FEMA pay for repairs at houses of worship.

© iStock.com / pastorscott

The basis of the suit points to help that FEMA has given religiously affiliated schools and community centers, but draws the line at the sanctuaries, which often step up the most in communities during a time of need.

“It is the faith community that responds so robustly to the need. And then to say, ‘Tough luck, we’re not going to help you put your own facility back together’ is wrong,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey, who is sponsoring the bill.

Support is not unanimous, however, as it raises questions about the separation of church and state. The AP describes it as such:

The debate centers on two key questions: Does providing such aid violate the First Amendment separation of church and state? Or is it an infringement on the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion to deny churches the same aid available to numerous other nonprofit organizations, such as libraries, zoos and homeless shelters?

Others maintain that the government would not be investing in the religion that’s awarded aid, but would simply be supporting yet another facet that would help a ravaged community get back on its feet.

“The purpose of the support would not be to subsidize religious worship but rather to clean up the community and help local institutions that themselves provide important relief services to those in need,” said Richard W. Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor.

   

Tagged categories: Churches; Disasters; Government; Lawsuits

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