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Judge denies Texas churches' aid request in FEMA lawsuit

HOUSTON — A judge on Thursday denied an emergency request for relief funds by three Texas churches damaged during Hurricane Harvey that are suing the federal government over how it offers disaster aid to houses of worship.

The churches are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency over a policy that denies disaster assistance to non-profit organizations with facilities that are primarily used for political, athletic, vocational or religious activities.

The three houses of worship accuse FEMA of religious discrimination by denying them equal access to disaster relief grants and not treating them on terms equal to other nonprofits.

FEMA says it hasn't denied the churches' applications but has placed them on hold while a change to its policy is reviewed. Pressure to change the policy has been mounting after this year's series of devastating hurricanes damaged many churches in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

"FEMA is turning into the Grinch who stole Christmas," Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the churches, said after Thursday's ruling in Houston. "By continuing to discriminate against churches, FEMA is sending the message that churches are not full members of the community, even when they are in fact the beating heart of disaster?recovery in Texas and elsewhere."

The churches plan on appealing the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing FEMA, didn't immediately return an email seeking comment.

In court documents filed on Monday before the federal judge's ruling, Justice Department lawyers had said the churches haven't "suffered, and will not suffer, irreparable injury, because their applications for ... grants have not been, and will not be, denied while FEMA actively works to implement a new ... policy."

In his nine page ruling, U.S. District Judge Gray Miller said he based his decision on the current FEMA policy and not on the proposed changes, which are currently "speculative and does not impact the challenge to the current policy." The review of FEMA's new policy could take up to 90 days to complete.

In addition to FEMA's proposed policy change, several members of Congress have revived legislation — first proposed after 2012's Superstorm Sandy — that would force FEMA to pay for repairs at places of worship.

Gray disagreed with the churches' claim that the current policy violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which allows individuals to freely exercise their religion.

In support of their lawsuit, the churches cited a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that found a Lutheran church in Columbia, Missouri, had been wrongly excluded from a state grant program to install a soft playground surface made of recycled tires. The Supreme Court ruled churches have the same right as other charitable groups to seek state money for nonreligious needs.

But Gray said the churches would be using the FEMA funds to rebuild facilities used primarily to promote religious activities, which is against the current policy.

Grey said legal precedent has found "the government has a historical and justifiable interest in avoiding an establishment of religion and using public funds to support religion."

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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