TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Two Florida synagogues damaged by Hurricane Irma have filed a lawsuit contending that houses of worship are unconstitutionally barred from receiving disaster assistance through a key federal program.
Chabad of Key West and Chabad of the Space Coast filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Key West against the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
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The lawsuit contends that a longstanding 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 and a law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“Plaintiff synagogues ask this court to order FEMA to treat them on equal terms with other non-profit organizations in accepting, evaluating, and acting on their disaster relief applications,” the 29-page lawsuit said. “The synagogues are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake. 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 issue of houses of worship being prevented from tapping into the assistance program also has drawn attention in Texas, where Hurricane Harvey caused massive damage in August. President Donald Trump has backed allowing assistance to religious institutions, with the White House Office of Management and Budget saying in Nov. 17 letter to Congress that the administration “notes its support for legislation that would make houses of worship eligible for disaster relief funding (provided they meet the other relevant criteria for private non-profit facilities).”
The lawsuit filed Monday said the synagogues are prevented from receiving assistance through the program because more than 50 percent of their space is used for religious activities. It said a wide range of other types of non-profit facilities are eligible for aid.
Both synagogues were damaged in Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and Collier County and then traveled up the state. For example, Chabad of Key West sustained roof damage and interior water damage, the lawsuit said.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because it helps administer assistance programs.
The synagogues have applied for aid through the Public Assistance Program and have applied for Small Business Administration loans.
“But it is possible that they will not be approved for an SBA loan, or that the cost of restoring their damaged facilities will exceed what an SBA loan will cover,” the lawsuit said. “Furthermore, the synagogues cannot wait until after the SBA processes their loan applications before seeking relief from the FEMA exclusion policy because the synagogues need to make plans for funding the full cost of restoring their damaged facilities.”
News Service of Florida