Why are three Texas churches suing Uncle Sam over FEMA funding? Glad you asked

The "faith-based FEMA" play a crucial role in disaster recovery.

As a journalist, I've witnessed this firsthand in places such as New Orleans, Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla.

Most recently, I traveled to Texas to report on people of faith mobilizing emergency shelters and distributing food and supplies after Hurricane Harvey. One of my favorite Houston stories — and yes, there was a religion angle — involved a fast-talking entrepreneur named "Mattress Mack." I also enjoyed writing about a large Oklahoma church group's journey to help Harvey victims.

In a twist to houses of worship helping after disasters, three Texas churches filed a federal lawsuit in September seeking help themselves — from FEMA. It's a fascinating case, one made even more interesting by President Trump's decision to weigh in on it:

I've wanted to dig into the case myself and try to understand it better. However, breaking news and other projects have kept me from doing so (excuses, excuses).

So I was pleased to see The Associated Press offer a primer before a court hearing earlier this week.

The AP writer — David A. Lieb — does an excellent job of explaining the key questions in this case, starting at the top:

When disaster strikes, houses of worship are often on the front lines, feeding and sheltering victims. Yet churches, synagogues and mosques are routinely denied aid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it comes time to repair or rebuild their damaged sanctuaries.
Pressure is mounting to change that after this year’s series of devastating hurricanes damaged scores of churches in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
FEMA is rethinking its policies in the face of a federal lawsuit, heard in court Tuesday, by three Texas churches hit by Hurricane Harvey. President Donald Trump has signaled his support, via Twitter, for the religious institutions.
At the same time, several members of Congress have revived legislation — first proposed after 2012′s Hurricane Sandy — that would force FEMA to pay for repairs at places of worship.
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?

If you can stand a little inside baseball, it's interesting to me that Lieb — AP's Jefferson City, Mo., correspondent — wrote this story, which you'll notice has no Texas dateline. But I'll be honest and say that I'm totally fine with Lieb handling this particular assignment by telephone.

He's a respected reporter whom we've praised before for his balance and fairness on hot-button issues. 

"David Lieb is probably the most respected journalist in Jefferson City," reader Chris Baker commented on one of our past posts. "Fair, thorough, and spinproof. And from personal experience, he 'gets' religion. AP could use more like him."

In the background included in the FEMA story, Lieb notes:

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Lutheran church in Columbia, Missouri, had been wrongly excluded from a state grant program to install a soft playground surface made of recycled tires. Chief Justice John Roberts called it “odious to our Constitution” to deny an otherwise eligible recipient solely because it’s a church.

I'm just guessing, but I suspect Lieb's experience covering the issues involved in that decision made him a logical choice to write about the Texas church-state case.

I appreciate that his FEMA story gives a voice to advocates on both sides, and I especially like that he included a source whose position surprised me:

The lawsuit contends hundreds of other places of worship also are being denied access to FEMA funding, but it’s hard to say how many would seek federal aid if given the opportunity or how much money is at stake.
First Baptist Rockport Church, a mile from the First Assembly of God, sustained about $1 million in damage when Hurricane Harvey collapsed a choir room wall and caused leaks in the roof. Senior Pastor Scott Jones said he doesn’t fault others who seek FEMA aid, but his church won’t be doing so.
“We believed that God would provide for us another way, and that we were going to respect the separation of church and state, and not expect or count on help from the federal government,” Jones said.

Interesting. Very interesting.

Kudos to Lieb and AP for a helpful, informative piece.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the churches that sued, a ruling is expected in the next month. 

Stay tuned.



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