By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been sued by three Texas churches severely damaged in Hurricane Harvey, over what they called its policy of refusing to provide disaster relief to houses of worship because of their religious status.
In a complaint filed on Monday in federal court in Houston, the churches said they would like to apply for aid but it would be "futile" because FEMA's public assistance program "categorically" excludes 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, contradicts a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision making it easier for religious groups to get public aid.
That June 26 decision, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc v. Comer, said U.S. states must sometimes provide such aid even if their constitutions explicitly ban such funding.
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.
"States and the federal government are different, but the First Amendment applies the same to both," Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer for Becket, said in a phone interview. "The principle is that governments can't discriminate on the basis of religious status, and that is unapologetically what FEMA is doing here."
The three churches, he added, "need emergency repair, now."
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.
"This may be the first case this court will hear regarding Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, but it is surely not the last," the complaint said.
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 Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)