- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2017

Three Texas churches are asking a federal appeals court Friday to hear their request for disaster relief funding following the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey earlier this year.

Their appeal comes after a federal district court ruled against the churches Thursday, and in favor of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which excludes religious facilities from receiving relief funds.

The churches sued in September, arguing FEMA’s policy is unconstitutional. Their attorney says the delay has caused them to miss grant deadlines, so they have asked for emergency relief from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“FEMA already left these devastated churches in the cold for Thanksgiving, and now it’s trying to shut them out for Christmas. Enough is enough,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Harvest Family as well as Rockport First Assembly of God and Hi-Way Tabernacle.

“A flooded building is a flooded building, whether it’s a theater, a church, or a synagogue, and they should all be treated equally, every one,” he said.

The three churches suffered roof damage and flooding after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast.

FEMA allows nonprofits that serve the public benefit to apply for disaster relief funds, but the agency explicitly excludes facilities primarily used for religious activities.

Hi-Way Tabernacle, one of the three churches, said it served as a shelter for storm evacuees, so it was particularly unfair to refuse funding that is available to nonprofits such as zoos and museums to rebuild after disasters.

But the district judge ruled Thursday FEMA’s policy doesn’t violate the First Amendment.

“Plaintiffs would use the FEMA funds to rebuild facilities used primarily to promote religious activities,” Judge Gray H. Miller said in the opinion for the District Court for the Southern District of Texas. “Thus, the funding from FEMA would be used to further those religious activities.”

The churches seek an emergency injunction from the appeals court by Monday “to allow them to apply for Public Assistance grants on an equal basis with all other nonprofits,” according to legal documents.

The Becket Fund points to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v Comer earlier this year, which permitted the church in Missouri to receive a state grant to improve the safety of its playground surface.

In the church playground case, the justices held that a state cannot refuse to fund a church’s secular activities just because it is a religious institution, in a decision Christian conservatives hailed as a major win for religious freedom.

But Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said he thinks the district court got it right by denying the churches’ request.

“Trinity Lutheran is not the direct analogy to this case,” Mr. Tuttle said. “This involves worship space, and not the playground.”

“You’re reconstructing the entire church,” he said.

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