Texas bishops support fair treatment of churches for FEMA aid

Discriminating against houses of worship for relief aid violates both the constitution and law

AUSTIN — The Catholic bishops of Texas support a recent suit filed in federal district court by three churches that alleges unconstitutional discrimination against them by FEMA in the allocation of Hurricane Harvey relief aid.

The three churches – Harvest Family Church, Hi-way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God – argue they meet all criteria under applicable FEMA rules and, but for their status as religious houses of worship, they would qualify for relief aid. Although not required by federal law, FEMA has an internal policy of excluding religious houses of worship from applying for disaster relief on an equal basis with other private non-profit societal institutions (e.g., museums, zoos, community centers, libraries, and rehabilitation facilities). Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese is formally joining in support of the suit through an amicus brief.

The churches argue denial of FEMA aid is essentially a categorical ban on disaster relief and constitutes an impermissible form of religious discrimination since churches have provided critical community services and play an integral role in disaster relief efforts, including by providing shelter, emergency aid, food, and other aid to affected populations. Beyond these three churches, other faith-based organizations have also served as evacuee shelters, storage depots, and relief and supply distribution centers. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) estimates “80% of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.”

Texas’ Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote President Trump asking him to use his executive authority to redefine a private non-profit facility for FEMA, arguing there is “a firm foundation of Supreme Court precedent declaring that the government does not violate the Establishment Clause when it provides religious organizations equal access to government programs, including funding.”

The Catholic bishops in areas most affected by Harvey argue churches should not be discriminated against when applying for FEMA aid.

Bishop Brendan Cahill of the Diocese of Victoria highlights the important role of our houses of worship as an intregal part of the fabric of our community, “Our parishes are at the heart of the community and strive to serve the common good. Many families have evacuated to other areas and knowing that their community, including their houses of worship, is rebuilding gives them the hope and strength to return home and join in the rebuilding efforts.”

“Our community in East Texas has suffered enough and the church is ready to provide all we can to support in rebuilding efforts,” stated Bishop Curtis Guillory of Beaumont. “Yet, the very same parishes providing services to our community cannot themselves receive aid. This is unacceptable.”

“The coastal regions of Texas have been devastated and many of our parishes and Catholic Charities offices are providing help when no one else can,” explained Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi. “Who else knows better the local community and their needs but the churches serving them? The parishes most affected by Hurricane Harvey in the Diocese of Corpus Christi are in small towns where the parish church, community hall and classroom buildings serve not only the parish community, but the community at large. If FEMA wants to effectively support in rebuilding efforts, churches must be included.”

The policy affects not only Christian churches but discriminates against all religious groups, including mosques, temples and synagogues, many of whom are also serving their local communities in heroic ways in the aftermath of recent storms. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue recently co-authored an opinion-editorial in USA Today, arguing FEMA’s policy is misguided and unfair when religious groups are among those trying to help others recover.

In that article they stated:

If a house of worship meets all the criteria for aid, it should be eligible to receive that aid on par with everyone else. Regardless of how FEMA treats us, however, we will still be present in our communities. We will feed the hungry, care for the orphan and elder, shelter the homeless, and welcome the immigrant.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is the association of the Roman Catholic bishops of Texas. The TCCB represents 15 dioceses and 19 active bishops. Through the TCCB, the bishops provide a moral and social public policy voice, accredit the state's Catholic schools, and maintain archives that reflect the work and the history of the Catholic Church in Texas.