FEMA finds faith
By Bill Berkowitz
Online Journal Guest Writer

Dec 23, 2005, 00:38

"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, 2005

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 faith-based offices.)

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 programs."

"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 hiring practices.

"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 August 2001.

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,'" Smoot said.

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 future administration.

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 added.

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.

Copyright © 1998-2006 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor