FEMA Apologizes After Volunteers Asked to Remove Faith-Based T-Shirts for Video

JACKSON, Miss. -- The top officer for FEMA said one of the agency's videographers was "absolutely wrong" to ask Mississippi church volunteers not to wear religious T-shirts for a video about tornado cleanup.

Angela Lott and Pamela Wedgeworth, who are sisters, told The Associated Press that the FEMA worker videotaping the cleanup on Saturday in the small town of Ebenezer asked them to do on-camera interviews but requested that they change out of their T-shirts because of a Salvation Army logo.

"He said, 'We would like to ask you to change your shirt because we don't want anything faith-based,"' Lott said Tuesday.

Lott said she asked him why he didn't want to feature faith groups.

"All he said was, 'We've done that hundreds of times,"' Lott said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said in a statement issued Monday that the man's actions "in no way reflect FEMA's policies or priorities."

"The photographer in question was absolutely wrong," Fugate said.

Lott and Wedgeworth attend a small rural church in Smith County. They volunteered through a ministry of Crossgates Baptist Church in Brandon.

Wedgeworth said of the photographer's request: "It kind of hurt my feelings. I think I made the comment, 'I think that's the reason we're all here, is by faith."'

The sisters said they changed their T-shirts and did brief on-camera interviews.

Fugate also apologized to Crossgates Baptist and to the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army and Jackson television station WJTV helped sponsor the "Caring for Mississippi -- Community Work Day." Volunteers helped remove tree limbs and clean up other debris from an April 24 tornado that left a 149-mile path of destruction through the state.

"We are proud of the work that is done by our volunteer and faith-based partners and we are proud to work side by side with them in disaster recovery efforts across the country," Fugate said. "FEMA is not the team, FEMA is only part of the team, and critical members of that team are the voluntary and faith-based organizations we work with every day."

U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., is a member of Crossgates Baptist and said he was distressed to hear volunteers had been asked to hide expressions of their faith.

Harper said Fugate called to assure him that FEMA does not discriminate against religious groups.

"I shared with him that we just didn't want to have a situation where the government would take the position that volunteers from churches had to be something different from what they were, which was faith-based groups coming to help people in need," Harper said Tuesday night.

Harper said Fugate told him the photographer had been fired. A FEMA spokesman would not comment.