"The Federal Emergency Management Agency
announced Tuesday, [November 8] that it will reimburse Harris County [Texas]
$1.2 million for costs associated with providing temporary shelter operations
for hurricane evacuees.
"The money will reimburse Harris County for
payments to faith- based organizations used to shelter evacuees following
hurricanes Katrina and Rita." -- Houston Business Journal, November 8,
Nearly a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf
Coast and New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared
that it would use taxpayer money to reimburse faith-based organizations for the
services they rendered in the aftermath of the hurricane.
"Religious organizations would be eligible for payments
if they operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical
facilities at the request of state or local governments in the three states
that have declared emergencies -- Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,"
FEMA officials said.
FEMA's decision was applauded by supporters of President
George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, and criticized by separation of church
and state activists.
In his post-hurricane scorecard, Marvin Olasky, the editor
of World magazine, an evangelical weekly, asserted that religious organizations
were one of the clear-cut winners in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
Olasky has been an advisor to Bush on faith-based matters
since the president's days as governor of Texas. While acknowledging that most
religious groups would likely not want to avail themselves of the government
money because they "are working out of love for God (and also want to
avoid political entanglements and preserve their volunteer donor base),"
nevertheless, "it's good that religious groups have the same choice that
secular groups possess," Olasky maintained.
"FEMA's decision was likely driven by politics,"
Rob Boston, the assistant director of communications for Americans United for
Separation of Church and State, told IPS. "It seems like a crass effort by
the Bush administration to take advantage of a tragic situation by placating
his conservative constituency."
"After FEMA's ineptitude in the wake of Hurricane
Katrina, it's distressing to see the Bush administration making even more
blunders," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United,
pointed out. "Before you turn over millions of taxpayer dollars to
churches, there must be strict accountability and safeguards to protect the
civil and religious liberty rights of those who need help."
In light of President Bush's anemic immediate response to
the catastrophe, the lack of effective pre-hurricane planning by state and
local government, and FEMA's failure to provide timely assistance to the
victims, the faith-based community mobilized quickly.
Thousands of vigorous and enthusiastic volunteers who were
affiliated with a broad assortment of religious groups stepped up to feed the
hungry, shelter the homeless, and serve the needy in countless ways.
While acknowledging the "instrumental" role
faith-based organizations were playing in hurricane relief, Jim Towey, the
assistant to the president and director of the Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives, reiterated the administration's commitment to "make
sure there is a level playing field so faith-based groups are not discriminated
against", during a recent interview with Christianity Today.
Since President Bush announced his faith-based initiative in
January 2001, "leveling the playing field", or removing so-called
barriers excluding faith-based groups from competing with secular groups for
government grants to provide social services, has been its major rationale.
Shortly after his first inauguration, Bush introduced his
faith-based initiative by issuing two executive orders. One established the
White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, while the other
instructed the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice,
Education and Housing and Urban Development to set up Centers for Faith-Based
and Community Initiatives within their agencies.
(Eight federal agencies and the U.S. Agency for
International Development and the Small Business Administration currently have
Departments were to look at "regulations, rules,
orders, procurement, and other internal policies and practices, and outreach
activities that either facially discriminate against or otherwise discourage or
disadvantage the participation of faith-based and other community organizations
in federal programs".
Results of the audit were published in "Unlevel Playing
Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in
Federal Social Service Programs." The report found "widespread bias
against faith- and community-based organizations in federal social service
"Leveling the playing field" became the
administration's mantra, as it claimed that laws needed to change so that
faith-based organizations could receive government money but still maintain
their religious character. On the other side, opponents charged that keeping
their "religious character" would open the door to discriminatory
"Leveling the playing field" was not a new
concept. It had surfaced in Texas while Bush was governor.
"In the name of 'leveling the playing field' for
faith-based programs in Texas, Bush passed laws relaxing regulations over these
[social service] programs, including fully exempting faith-based drug treatment
centers and children's homes from state licensing and oversight," Samantha
Smoot, the then-executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, pointed out in
Gov. Bush "explicitly directed that office to 'eliminate
unnecessary legislative, regulatory and other bureaucratic barriers that impede
effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems,'"
Bush's faith-based project has yet to result in a major
legislative initiative, mainly due to objections that government money could go
to religious organizations aiming to skirt existing civil rights laws and
discriminate in its hiring practices. However, as Jim Towey acknowledged to
Christianity Today, the Bush administration handed out more than two billion
dollars to faith-based groups in the last year alone.
On Mar. 2, Representative Mark Green, a Wisconsin
Republican, introduced "The Tools for Community Initiatives Act",
which would make the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives, and other federal agencies with faith-based centers, "a
permanent part of the federal government."
Since Bush's faith-based initiative was set up through
executive orders, the bill provides a safeguard against it being rescinded by a
According to OMB Watch, the bill would "establish the
offices and outlines their responsibilities. It does not include portions of
current regulations that address how religious groups handle federal grants.
Instead, these issues are included in a non-binding 'Sense of Congress'
section, which does not address the issue of hiring on the basis of religion
for federally funded jobs." The provisions of H.R. 1054 would exist "until
Congress acted to eliminate them."
"Some religious organizations are openly using the hurricane
relief efforts to win new converts," Americans United's Barry Lynn said. "If
these groups can't separate their evangelism from their relief work, they
should not be eligible for public funding. People displaced by Hurricanes
Katrina and Rita should not be subjected to unwanted, high-pressure religious
coercion as the price of getting help from their own government."
While recognizing that faith-based organizations provided
extraordinary service in the aftermath of the hurricanes, Boston also noted
that FEMA's reimbursement directive contains no oversight provisions or
limitations as to how the money will be used.
"In the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane
Katrina, it would be difficult to oppose these types of measures," Boston
Boston expects the administration to continue pushing its
faith-based initiative despite not having passed any comprehensive legislation
on the matter. "It's up and running full throttle simply due to executive
orders and regulatory changes," he said, "and I expect them to
continue operating in that manner."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the
conservative movement. His
WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies,
players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.