President Donald Trump and black Democratic lawmakers don’t agree on much, but they do agree that FEMA needs to fund houses of worship that assist hurricane victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
As the waters slowly recede from Houston and parts of Florida from the two deadly storms, the president and some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are aggressively diving into the murky waters of separation of church and state issues.
They separately argue that Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA – should make relief funds available to houses of worship, especially if those institutions are involved in helping victims of disasters.
"They give churches so much red tape to go through to get public benefits," Cedric Richmond, D-La., black caucus chairman, said of FEMA.
Houses of worship can get financial disaster assistance if their facilities are primarily used for "educational, utility, emergency, medical…custodial or essential services of a governmental nature," according to FEMA guidelines.
Trump jumped into the church-state debate Friday when he tweeted that three small Texas churches that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey should be entitled to FEMA assistance to help rebuild. The churches filed a lawsuit in federal District Court against FEMA seeking help.
FEMA officials were not made available for comment Wednesday.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who represents Houston, said black lawmakers "will be right here to work with the White House" on behalf of houses of worship.
That’s not likely to happen soon. Relations have been tense between Trump and the black caucus. The caucus met with the president in January, but has had no meetings since.
The group rejected a White House invitation for a full caucus meeting with the president in June, questioning Trump’s sincerity about helping the black Americans.
"We have in fact witnessed steps that will affirmatively hurt black communities," Richmond wrote in a letter to the White House turning down the June invite.
Now, though, he and other black caucus members are making arguments that Trump is also offering. Caucus members said FEMA’s criteria for houses of worship is short-sighted, noting that religious facilities are often pressed into service during disasters to house and feed victims or even to serve as FEMA staging areas.
One of the churches in the Texas lawsuit, the Hi-Way Tabernacle, became a FEMA staging area, sheltered 70 people and sent out more than 8,000 emergency meals, The Washington Post reported.
"Churches have been typically not allowed because they are faith organizations," Jackson Lee said. "It has to meet the constitutional standards of separation of church and state, but we in the caucus are well aware of the work that the churches are doing, the damages they’ve received, and we think there must a worthy (FEMA) review and consideration, so they are not left out."
Separation of church and state advocates are skeptical of any changes to current FEMA policy.
"We don’t think that that the separation of church and state allows FEMA to provide grants to rebuild churches," said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "We understand that a lot of people are suffering down in Texas and Florida. But the fact that something horrible has happened doesn’t justify violations of the Constitution."
In his tweet Friday, Trump "Churches in Texas should be entitled to reimbursement from FEMA Relief Funds for helping victims of Hurricane Harvey (just like others)."
Black caucus members began talking about FEMA’s approach to houses of worship last week during a closed-door meeting that was dominated by how the government can improve its response to disasters like hurricanes.
"…So many of our churches serve as more than just the sanctuary – they hold (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings, community meetings, all that stuff," Richmond said. "It should be a little easier for them to apply and get (FEMA) funding. I still have churches 12 years out from Katrina fighting with FEMA for reimbursement."
When told that black lawmakers and Trump share the same view on changing the way FEMA approaches houses of worship and disaster aid, Richmond said "If he wants to do that, FEMA is his. Go get them straight."