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President Trump: Stop The FEMA Religious Discrimination

Last Friday, a Houston federal judge rejected FEMA’s attempt to delay a challenge by three Texas churches asking for equal access to disaster relief aid. The judge also set a December 1 deadline for FEMA to change its position or he would issue a ruling. Since the devastation by Hurricane Harvey in late August, FEMA has denied houses of worship access to federal disaster aid grants while allowing other non-profits to apply. Judge Keith Ellison’s ruling in Harvest Family Church v. FEMA suggests that the end may be near for the agency’s policy that explicitly discriminates against houses of worship because of their religious status. 

The three churches – Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God –sued Churches FEMAFEMA on September 4, because of the agency’s policy of excluding churches. The churches received overwhelming support, including friend-of-the-court briefs filed by a Houston synagogue and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. But since the start of the lawsuit, FEMA has continued to shut houses of worship out of the disaster relief grant application process. The ruling Friday repeatedly refers to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, which ruled that the First Amendment requires religious groups to receive equal access to widely available public programs. 

“Christmas may come early for hard-hit houses of worship in Texas—the Court has set the clock ticking on FEMA’s irrational religious discrimination policy,” said Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, the non-profit religious liberty law firm that represents the churches. “It can’t come soon enough.”

Judge Ellison heard arguments in the case on Tuesday. Friday, he denied a request by Department of Justice lawyers to delay the case and gave FEMA a December 1 deadline to change its position or he would issue a ruling. In his ruling, the judge recognizes that the Churches’ challenge is a “First Amendment case,” that the Churches here have suffered “significant damage,” and that FEMA’s exclusionary policy is “fraught” with constitutional issues.

“Discriminating against houses of worship—which are often on the front lines of disaster relief—is not just wrongheaded, it strikes at our nation’s most fundamental values,” said Blomberg.

Kate Shellnut of reports that their case brings up the precedent set by the US Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran playground ruling, which stated in June that a church could not be kept from applying for a public grant “solely because it is a church.”

FEMA’s public assistance program focuses on organizations providing public services, so it excludes “facilities established or primarily used for political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities.”

Since many churches use their buildings for both religious purposes and for charitable outreach to the public, FEMA clarifies the eligibility of mixed-use facilities and explicitly bars organizations that put on “religious activities, such as worship, proselytizing, religious instruction, or fundraising activities that benefit a religious institution and not the community at large.” Religious nonprofits that run secular community centers, that are open to all, and do not host any worship activities, are an exception.

Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in the Trinity Lutheran case brought up how “the court leaves open the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use.” FEMA’s policy likely falls into the latter category.

“They’re not asking that FEMA give them the money; they just want a place at the table” to apply for it, said Blomberg.

Houses of worship were among the first to respond in Harvey’s aftermath and they continue to provide aid to their communities. While the court heard arguments on Tuesday, Hi-Way Tabernacle was unloading several tractor trailers of food and goods for distribution to hundreds of people in their community.

Though houses of worship cannot apply for money to offset response costs or to rebuild damaged buildings, FEMA policy lists churches among the facilities that are typically used as emergency shelters.

Hi-Way Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God congregation outside of Houston, is hosting hurricane evacuees for the third time:

As of September 4, the church was sheltering between 60 and 70 people, with more expected. The Tabernacle’s gym has been transformed into a warehouse for the county, storing and distributing food, water, hygiene products, and clothing. Over 8,000 FEMA emergency meals have been distributed from the Tabernacle’s facilities. Relief workers are using the facilities to provide both medical services and haircuts to victims. The Tabernacle has been informed that governmental disaster relief helicopters may be landing on its property as well.

In the first few days of flooding, the City of Houston called on several churches to serve as official temporary shelters, and many others opened their doors on their own. Now that recovery and cleanup efforts have begun, churches continue to collect and distribute materials and prepare damaged homes for renovation, rallying together as “the faith-based FEMA” that often turns out after major disasters, reports Ms. Shellnut.

Samaritan’s Purse is operating out of five areas affected by Harvey, dispatching over 2,000 volunteers. World Vision has collected supplies to help around 100,000 people displaced by the storm. Send Relief and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief are providing hot meals, clean water, and other necessities.

FEMA has already approved $66.4 million in Hurricane Harvey relief funds. During previous storms like Katrina and Sandy, affected households received between $7,000 and $8,000 in assistance on average according to Kate Shellnut’s reporting.

Bizarrely, says Becket, FEMA’s current policy discriminates against churches while at the same time using them for its own relief efforts. The policy also stands in defiance of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Trinity Lutheran, which appears to protect the right of religious organizations to participate in widely available programs on equal footing with secular organizations.

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President Trumps leadership vs. actions.

As one who voted for Candidate Trump and supports most of his actions to this date I am deeply disappointed on his inability to walk and chew gum at the same time.
So FEMA rejects the Churches requests, where is President Trump on this issue, why has the head of FEMA not been called on the carpet for this?
Another issue similar is the nominee for the Homeland Security says she is opposed to the Wall being built why has her name not been withdrawn?
Another nominee for another position says he wants to out law semi automatic weapons why does his name remain in nomination?
We read all the things that President Trump has accomplished, right now the nomination and placement of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is the major win for him. Most of the other accomplishments are one done by Executive Order, well as easy as it was for President Trump to undo the obama executive orders the next democratic President can undo President Trumps Executive Orders.
He needs to work with Congress and come up with laws and regulation that will stop future Presidents from over stepping their authority.