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Texas churches flooded by Harvey sue FEMA for equal access to emergency relief funds

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

Three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey floodwaters have sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) over its policy of excluding religious groups from receiving disaster relief funds.

On Monday, a lawsuit seeking a court order to block the policy was filed in Houston on behalf of the Rockport First Assembly of God in Aransas County, Harvest Family Church in Harris County and Hi-Way Tabernacle in Liberty County.

The suit alleged that the government's disaster relief policy violates the U.S. Constitution by denying faith groups the right to apply for relief funds that are readily available to other non-profit organizations, such as zoos and museums.

"The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake," Diana Verm, who represents the churches through the nonprofit firm Becket, said in court papers.

"Hurricane Harvey didn't cherry-pick its victims; FEMA shouldn't cherry-pick who it helps," she added in an emailed statement Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.

The churches are hoping to receive funds before the the end of FEMA's month-long application window for Harvey victims.

"Time is of the essence with respect to the subject matter of the churches' claim. Mold will not wait for litigation process to spread through the churches' buildings; storm and flood debris will not stop rotting while the government processes their claims," the lawsuit stated.

Nicole Navas, a spokesperson at the Justice Department, said the government is "aware of the complaint and will examine the claims."

The lawsuit cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving Trinity Lutheran, in which the high court ruled that the Missouri state government could not prevent a church from applying for a public grant just because it is affiliated with a religion.

One of the churches is reportedly being used as a disaster relief shelter for hurricane victims, but it is ineligible to apply for FEMA funds to repair damaged caused by flooding.

The Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland, which has sustained $60,000 of damage, has served as a staging ground and distribution center for FEMA and disaster relief groups during hurricanes Rita, and it stepped up again during Hurricane Harvey.

The church, which is offering shelter for about 65 people, has begun removing debris, but it needs more funds to replace damaged carpets, drywall, insulation, wiring, ceiling tiles and furniture, according to court documents.

"Churches have been told by FEMA: We will use you, but we will not help you," said Daniel Blomberg, an attorney for Becket, which specializes in religious liberty cases. "They're not asking that FEMA give them the money; they just want a place at the table" to apply for it, he added.

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