Two Florida synagogues sue FEMA over hurricane disaster aid

Chabad of Key West
Chabad of Key West Keynoter

Two Florida synagogues are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency for being denied disaster-relief grants in the wake of Hurricane Irma because they are houses of worship.

The lawsuit says a longtime federal restriction on — synagogues, churches and other religious institutions receiving disaster-relief grants through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment along with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Chabad of Key West and Chabad of the Space Coast in Satellite Beach want the federal government’s policy to change.

“One would think, then, that houses of worship would also get federal government disaster-relief help on an equal basis with other private nonprofit societal institutions such as community centers and zoos,” reads the 29-page complaint. “Yet FEMA policy explicitly denies equal access to FEMA disaster relief grants for houses of worship solely because they are houses of worship — that is, because of their religious nature.”

The synagogues are being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., and Jaroslawicz Law Offices of Bay Harbor Islands.

“The synagogues are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” the suit says. “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 case was filed Dec. 4 at U.S. District Court in Key West and is assigned to Senior Judge James Lawrence King.

Founded in 1995, Chabad of Key West has about 200 members. Hurricane Irma left Chabad with roof damage and interior water damage that now requires permanent repairs plus mold remediation, the lawsuit reads.

Both synagogues have applied for Small Business Administration loans, the lawsuit states, but nothing guarantees they will receive them or that the loans will be enough to cover all the damage.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen