Pastor of flooded church backs FEMA rule change
The pastor of a Katy-area church that sustained major flood damage from Hurricane Harvey is applauding the decision by the Trump Administration to reverse federal disaster aid policies that denied financial assistance to houses of worship.
“We’re excited about the good news. The playing field is now fair for everybody,” said Rev. Jorge Cardenas, who leads Church on the Rock at 433 S. Barker Cypress.
The release of water from the nearby Barker Reservoir sent a cascade rushing through the church. Weeks later, the destruction was still event. The carpets had be pulled up and the bottom four feet of the church’s walls had to be cut away.
“The damage was immense. We lost all our furniture,” Cardenas said.
Even as their own church remained under a lake, members continued to offer help to others in the community who lost everything in the floods. Once the waters finally began to recede, some much needed assistance was provided by volunteers and the faith-based community.
“We had so many people from different denominations who came on board to help us recover,” Cardenas said.
But the volunteer help simply wasn’t enough. With repairs even conservatively expected to cost thousands of dollars, government aid was needed for Cardenas’ congregation. But, a long-standing policy from the Federal Emergency Management Agency excluded churches and other houses of worship for disaster relief funds, although FEMA often partners with churches to provide shelter and distribute aid to disaster areas.
President Trump had signaled his support for churches getting help from the government. FEMA amended its rules following a U.S. Supreme Court case where the majority ruled that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should receive equal access to widely-available public programs. The FEMA rule now says private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment.
“It’s a great victory for equal protection and treatment of churches as valuable institutions as well as providers of critical services to the community in times of need,” said Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council.
Soon after the flood, a press conference was held at Church on the Rock where First Liberty, a Plano-based religious liberty advocacy group, called on the Trump Administration to end the policy they said was discriminatory. Chelsey Youman, an attorney with the organization, said the FEMA rule change “allows our clients to continue to be the bedrocks of their hurricane ravaged communities.”
“Thanks to the Trump Administration, thousands of houses of worship are again eligible for FEMA relief just like everyone else and can start the process of rebuilding,” Youman said.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. opposes the rule change and has filed legal briefs supporting the former FEMA policy. Alex Luchenitser, the group’s associate legal director, told the Houston Chronicle they are “deeply troubled by this policy change.”
“It’s a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution and its protection of the separation of church and state,” Luchenitser said.
The Hurricane Harvey floods resulted in Cardenas and his congregation being forced to temporarily leave the church. Now back in their house of worship, Cardenas said there is still much work ahead and financial assistance from FEMA is needed. The church was forced to tap into funds originally set aside for their religious ministries in order to pay some of their mounting repair bills, which Cardenas in churchman fashion characterized as “Taking from Peter to pay Paul.”
“A lot of the things we did are still pending. I still have contractors waiting to be paid,” he said.