Archdiocese, synagogue: Court must fix FEMA policy

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two Houston religious groups hit by Hurricane Harvey, theArchdiocese of Galveston-Houston and theCongregation Torah Vachesed synagogue of Houston, urged a federal court to immediately end a FEMA policy that denies houses of worship equal access to disaster relief. The groups submitted friend-of-the-court briefs inHarvest Family Church v. FEMAwhere three small Texas churches are challenging  FEMA’s aid policy in the wake of the massive late-August natural disaster—one of many to hit the U.S. in a few short weeks. The briefs highlight ways houses of worship responded in Harvey’s aftermath and continue to provide aid to their local communities, and point out FEMA’s unfairness in discriminating against churches while using them as staging grounds for its relief efforts.

Last month, Becket filed a lawsuit against FEMA on behalf of Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle, and Rockport First Assembly of God. The lawsuit argues that, consistent with the Supreme Court’s 7-2 Trinity Lutheran Church decision, churches have the right to participate equally in generally available programs with other nonprofit organizations. This week’s briefs support the churches’ arguments and counter FEMA’s attempts to delay a ruling by the court.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston highlighted relief efforts by religious communities, including nuns like Sister Margaret Ann, “who was caught on tape wielding a chainsaw in her habit and clearing debris after Hurricane Irma.” The Congregation Torah Vachesed synagogue’s brief noted that “an estimated 71 percent of Houston’s Jewish population lived in areas that experienced massive flooding,” which damaged “seven major Jewish community institutions . . . includ[ing] three of the five largest synagogues in Houston.”  It also criticized FEMA’s for saying the court should wait to rule on the case until years from now, after FEMA finally rejects church applications, saying “[a] flooded synagogue has no time to spare to file a claim that FEMA has already made clear is doomed.”

The two religious groups are represented by prominent Houston firms. The Archdiocese is represented by Michael Bennett and Richard Husseini of Baker Botts LLP. And Congregation Torah Vachesed, which was joined by the national Jewish religious liberty group Jews for Religious Liberty, is represented by Jamie Aycock of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

“Hard-hit houses of worship shouldn’t be denied a place at the table just because FEMA thinks they’re ‘too religious,’” said Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket, the non-profit law firm representing the three churches. “FEMA should drop its phobia of religion and get back to focusing on helping communities rebuild.”

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court.For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians  (read more here).

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