HOUSTON – A U.S. district court judge has denied a series of requests from three Houston-area churches seeking money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make repairs to their buildings damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
U.S. District Judge Gary H. Miller of the Houston Division of the Southern District of Texas in an order signed on Dec. 7 ruled against Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God.
The plaintiffs were seeking a temporary restraining order, request for hearing and an injunction order to excuse them from the exclusion policy under the First Amendment because they are religious organizations. The churches sued FEMA claiming its policy violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
According to the opinion, to receive disaster relief grants, a private nonprofit must own or operate an “eligible facility.” This would include a facility that offers a non-critical but key government services.
The churches acknowledged that they utilize more than half of their space for religious activities, while they met other funding requirements. They asserted that they were denied funding because they are religious organizations.
In its defense, FEMA maintained that the plaintiffs didn’t suffer any real injury.
Moreover, FEMA also pointed out that it has not denied the churches’ applications for funding. Instead, they are on hold while it reviews its policy.
FEMA also noted it is hammering out the details of a new policy that could make the churches’ claims a moot point, the opinion states.
"Even though FEMA is in a holding period and has stopped denying applications, the policy’s plain language states that a facility primarily used for religious activity cannot receive funding,” Miller wrote in the Dec. 7 order. “Plaintiffs concede that they use their facilities primarily for religious activity. Undoubtedly, FEMA will deny funding to plaintiffs under the current policy. Thus, plaintiffs have standing.”
However, Miller noted the key question is whether the churches’ constitutional rights have been violated.
Miller noted that FEMA’s policy offers clear distinction for government use, requiring a private nonprofits provide “eligible services.”
“FEMA’s denial of funding is not because of plaintiffs’ status as religious institutions, but rather because they primarily use their facilities for religious activities,” he wrote.
Further, Miller noted that FEMA’s rules don’t target religious entities. It also holds that facilities used for “political, athletic, religious, recreational, vocational, or academic training, conferences, or similar activities are not eligible.”
"Because plaintiffs do not show a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, the motions for preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order are denied,” Miller concluded.
A request for a hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order also was denied, while a motion for leave to submit an amici brief was granted.