WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Friday that churches in Texas should be able to receive money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Trump tweeted: “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)”.
Trump’s tweet followed a lawsuit filed by three Texas Churches seeking federal aid to repair severe damage to their structures by Harvey. It was not clear whether the churches had provided aid to victims.
In the complaint filed on Monday in federal court in Houston, the Texas churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be “futile” because FEMA’s public assistance program “categorically” excluded their claims, violating their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.
They said FEMA’s ban on providing relief where at least half a building’s space is used for religious purposes, a policy also enforced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, contradicted a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.
Becket, a nonprofit that advocates for religious freedoms and represents the churches, said the same principle should apply to federal FEMA relief for Harvey victims.
“The principle is that governments can’t discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here,” Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a phone interview.
A FEMA spokeswoman said in an email it would be inappropriate to discuss pending litigation.
The Texas churches that sued are the Rockport First Assembly of God in Rockport, which lost its roof and steeple and suffered other structural damage, and the Harvest Family Church in Cypress and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which were flooded.
The case is Harvest Family Church et al v Federal Emergency Management Agency et al, U.S, District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 17-02662.
Reporting by Eric Beech; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Writing by Eric Walsh; Editing by Andrew Hay