President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Friday night to wade into a contentious legal dispute between churches and his own administration. The commander in chief said that churches “should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds.” The message came days after three churches in Texas sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency to demand access to funds that are normally reserved for non-profits that are not associated with any religion.
Trump’s tweet says churches should be treated “just like others,” which could be seen as the opening salvo toward a new standard where secular non-profits and religious organizations are treated the same when it comes to deciding who gets federal disaster relief funds. Presumably, Trump’s desire to extend these benefits to churches would also apply to other religious institutions such as mosques and synagogues.
The Harvest Family Church, the Hi-Way Tabernacle and the Rockport First Assembly of God were all damaged during Harvey and filed a lawsuit Monday claiming they should be eligible for disaster relief funds. “The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” reads the lawsuit. “And they need to know now whether they have any hope of counting on FEMA or whether they will continue to be excluded entirely from these FEMA programs.”
The lawsuit was filed three months after the Supreme Court sided with a church in Missouri that wanted federal funds to resurface its playground. The churches were inspired by that decision, which was seen as a big victory for religious-liberty advocates, to file their own lawsuit, according to experts. Yet those who advocate for a strict separation of church and state say there is a clear difference between the Supreme Court decision and the Texas litigation. The Supreme Court allowed the church to get funding for something that was at its core, nonreligious. But the Texas churches want money to repair their facilities, which are essentially religious.