Judge Gives FEMA 3 Weeks to Change Policy Banning Churches From Receiving Disaster Relief

(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)A volunteer helps clean up the damage from a Lutheran church in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey in Dickinson, Texas, U.S., September 2, 2017.

A Houston federal judge has given FEMA three weeks to decide if its going to change its policy of denying disaster relief to religious institutions, rejecting FEMA's attempt to delay a challenge by three Texas churches.

Since the devastation by Hurricane Harvey in late August, FEMA has denied houses of worship access to federal disaster aid grants due to their religious status while allowing other nonprofits and businesses to apply, but Judge Keith Ellison has given the agency until Dec. 1 to change that policy.

If FEMA fails to change the policy within the deadline, the judge said he would issue a ruling.

"Christmas may come early for hard-hit houses of worship in Texas — the court has set the clock ticking on FEMA's irrational religious discrimination policy," Daniel Blomberg, counsel at Becket, the nonprofit religious liberty law firm that represents the churches, said in a statement. "It can't come soon enough."

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(Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria/File Photo)A Federal Emergency Management Agency employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017.

Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God, which were among the first to respond in Harvey's aftermath and continue to provide aid to their communities, sued FEMA in September.

Last month, a Roman Catholic and a Jewish group submitted friend-of-the-court briefs siding with the three evangelical churches.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston pointed out in its brief that FEMA's policy is "especially unfair," given that many houses of worship are often at the "very forefront" of providing "immediate aid to persons in need, regardless of faith, in the aftermath of serious tropic storms and other natural disasters."

The Congregation Torah Vachesed synagogue of Houston noted that Hurricane Harvey was "particularly unforgiving" to the city's Jewish community. "Despite this, Jewish institutions have been greatly involved in relief efforts throughout Houston. FEMA's policy against funding otherwise qualifying religious institutions, however, would deny these same institutions equal access to public assistance to repair flood damage," it wrote.

Secular groups, such as the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said earlier that FEMA's policy should remain as is. "The government can help many individuals and nonprofits rebuild, but not churches. It is a founding principal of our nation that citizens may not be taxed in support of religion and churches," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor argued.

"Discriminating against houses of worship — which are often on the front lines of disaster relief — is not just wrongheaded, it strikes at our nation's most fundamental values," said Blomberg.

In September, four Republican senators introduced a new bill, Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, which is aimed at giving houses of worship the right to receive federal assistance in the wake of natural disasters.