Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Wednesday requesting that churches and other houses of worship have the same access to Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funding as secular nonprofit organizations following Hurricane Harvey.
The letter comes after U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, along with Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, introduced a bill on Monday that would make houses of worship eligible for FEMA Public Assistance grants. The grants provide funding to repair or reconstruct private nonprofit facilities, such as museums, but houses of worship were deemed ineligible for the grants under the 1988 Stafford Act.
The Stafford Act also grants the President authority to determine what qualifies as a nonprofit, according to the letter., which argues faith-based organizations have played a large role in recovery efforts following the storm.
“When Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, wreaking devastation over a huge swath of the Texas Gulf Coast, scores of churches and houses of worship jumped into action to serve thousands of Americans in their time of need,” the letter said.
Three Texas churches filed lawsuits against FEMA over the policy earlier this month, arguing they should be eligible for disaster relief money. President Trump has expressed his support for granting houses of worship equal access to funding, tweeting on Sept. 8, “Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others).”
The letter also cites the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which defended the rights of religious organizations to access certain kinds of government funding.
Following Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, introduced a bill in 2013 to make religious organizations eligible for FEMA Public Assistance grants. The bill, which passed the House of Representatives, drew criticism for attempting to give government assistance to tax-exempt organizations. It was also described by opponents as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Maggie Garrett, legislative director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said houses of worship can already receive federal loans and reimbursements for social services. Public Assistance grants are different, however, because taxpayer dollars would be going to directly finance their reconstruction.
“Our hearts are with everyone who suffered in the wake of this storm. At the same time, it’s really important to protect the values of the U.S. Constitution,” Garrett said. “What’s more establishing of religion than building a church?"