This last year, FEMA took an enormous amount of heat for discriminating against houses of worship that wanted equal access to disaster relief funding FEMA provides to other nonprofit organizations. This discriminatory policy came to light after several places of worship tried to apply for relief following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma — and FEMA denied it.
On Friday, Congress passed a law that protects churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship to which FEMA has denied aid. President Trump signed the bipartisan bill into law shortly after it was passed. Congress’ action ensures that FEMA’s new policy will endure so that houses of worship are treated equally alongside secular nonprofit organizations applying for disaster aid.
For several decades, and unbeknownst to many, FEMA excluded houses of worship from its disaster aid programs. After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, three Texas churches and two Florida synagogues, represented by Becket, a nonprofit organization that represents religious liberty cases, sued the government in separate lawsuits asking for equal access to disaster relief aid. One of those cases, Harvest Family Church v. FEMA, went to the Supreme Court. The court asked FEMA to justify its exclusion policy and in response, FEMA ended its discrimination against churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.
In a statement, Diana Verm, legal counsel at Becket, said, “Congress has delivered a big victory for houses of worship everywhere. It was always strange to tell houses of worship that there is no room at the inn, when they are the first to help in time of need. Congress has now put this troubling history of discrimination behind us.”
What always made FEMA’s policy so disingenuous, on top of being discriminatory, was the fact that houses of worship were among the first to respond in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Even as they continued to offer food, supplies, aid, and shelter, they themselves were denied the very aid that would allow them to continue to help their community.
While a case could be made that too many lawsuits clog up the already-burdened legal system, this lawsuit, which upended years of hypocrisy and overt discrimination — and the ensuing law Congress passed as a result — provides an example of useful litigation.
Nicole Russell is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a journalist in Washington, D.C., who previously worked in Republican politics in Minnesota. She was the 2010 recipient of the American Spectator's Young Journalist Award.
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