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Judge denies FEMA request to delay case over policy banning disaster relief for churches

(REUTERS/Mike Blake)A chalkboard pointing to a FEMA office is shown in the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas.

A federal judge has rejected a request made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to delay a case filed by three Texas churches over its policy of blocking disaster relief to houses of worship.

In a seven-page order issued on Friday, U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison denied the FEMA's motion to stay the case and gave it three weeks to decide whether it is going to change its policy denying disaster relief to religious institutions.

Harvest Family Church, Hi-Way Tabernacle and Rockport First Assembly of God sued FEMA in September, arguing that the agency's ban on aid to religious nonprofits violates the First Amendment, Courthouse News reported.

Hi-Way Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church in Cleveland, Texas, had housed 70 people displaced by Hurricane Harvey and also served as a staging area for FEMA even though it had suffered flood damage from the storm.

"Houses of worship were among the first to respond in Harvey's aftermath and they continue to provide aid to their communities," Becket, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm representing three churches, said in a statement, according to World Net Daily.

"While the court heard arguments on Tuesday, Hi-Way Tabernacle was unloading several tractor trailers of food and goods for distribution to hundreds of people in their community. Bizarrely, FEMA's current policy discriminates against churches while at the same time using them for its own relief efforts," it continued.

The churches have pointed out that the FEMA policy is no different from a Missouri benefits program that excluded churches from applying for aid to resurface their playgrounds.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that the Missouri program violates the Free Exercise Clause, with Chief Justice John Roberts stating in the majority opinion that it is "odious to our Constitution" to exclude applicants from receiving public benefits solely because they are a church.

Justice Department attorney Kari E. D'Ottavio had asked the judge at a Nov. 7 hearing to stay the case for 60 days while the agency reviews the policy, which it has stopped enforcing.

Ellison denied the request and indicated in his order that he will likely grant the churches' motion for a preliminary injunction on Dec. 1, if FEMA does not defend the policy or come up with a new one by that time.

"If, by December 1, FEMA's position remains unchanged, the court will assume that FEMA concedes, at the very least, plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits of this case and that the injury being suffered by plaintiffs is irreparable," the judge wrote.

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