Storm Debris and Religious Discrimination

When a severe ice storm hit parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began coordinating federal assistance to the affected states and making aid available to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

But among the things it wouldn’t do was remove debris from commercial properties because, as FEMA states, “it is assumed and expected that these commercial enterprises retain insurance that can and will cover the cost of debris removal.”

Now an Arkansas church is complaining that FEMA used its parking lot during the recovery efforts but then refused to pick up the debris from its property … and so it has now contacted the Alliance Defense Fund, which is accusing FEMA of religious discrimination:

Following instructions in the local media that all properties should pile their debris by the street for FEMA to pick up, the church piled its debris near the street, but a FEMA supervisor advised the church that FEMA would not be collecting the church’s debris because “churches are considered a commercial business.”  FEMA denied assistance to other churches in the community as well.

“The denial of disaster relief to Southside Community Church constitutes discrimination in its worst form,” the ADF letter states.  “A church is not a ‘commercial business’ but is a vital community partner and participant in disaster relief….  Further, the rationale that a church is a ‘commercial enterprise’ seems to mask the fact that what is really occurring here is religious discrimination….  FEMA is mandated to provide disaster services without discriminating on the grounds of religion.”

FEMA reportedly did not pick up debris from any church which, instead of being taken as a sign of standard policy, is being held up as proof that FEMA is engaging in religious discrimination.  But for its part, FEMA insists it did not use church grounds as a staging area and that the church never requested public assistance with its clean-up efforts:

FEMA spokesman Win Henderson said federal and state government log records show the church was not a FEMA staging area during the debris clean up from the January ice storm.

Also, Henderson said, the church is a private nonprofit organization and did not qualify for debris pick up. In addition, he said, the church did not submit a request for public assistance.

This is yet another example of the tendency I commented on earlier this month, whereby seemingly standard practices, when they happen to inconvenience Christians, become further evidence to the Religious Right that there is a conspiracy afoot to discriminate against them.