The Marketplace Report: Churches to Get FEMA Funds

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced plans Monday to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that provided shelter, food and supplies to hurricane survivors. Civil liberties groups called that a violation of the boundaries between church and state. Madeleine Brand discusses the issue with Bob Moon of Marketplace.


Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The federal government says it will use taxpayer money to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that provided aid to hurricane victims. But civil libertarians object, saying that's a violation of the separation of church and state. Bob Moon joins us from the "Marketplace" news bureau in New York with more on this story.

Bob, how will FEMA decide which religious organizations get this money?

BOB MOON reporting:

Hey, Madeleine. Well, this would be the first time that the federal government has handed out payments of such a large scale to religious groups for assistance in a domestic natural disaster. FEMA has been considering this for weeks, and it's now been decided that religious organizations will be eligible under some specific rules. They can be reimbursed only if they operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities, and they did so at the request of state or local governments. So far, the supply is to the three states that have officially declared emergencies: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A FEMA spokesman says those organizations that qualify can get a wide range of costs reimbursed. Those include labor costs that are in excess of normal operations, rent for the facility and delivery of essential needs, like food and water.

BRAND: And tell us more about what the civil liberties groups are saying about this.

MOON: Well, this decision does come after several weeks of nudging, if you will, by Republican leaders. Some opponents of the idea are complaining that it violates the traditional line that separates church and state. In fact, Barry Lynn--he heads a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State--he's accusing the Bush administration of trying to repair its image by making right-wing groups happy. Lynn says that seeing a lot of organizations actively working to be paid back with federal funds is what he calls a strange definition of charity.

On the other hand, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has pointed out that some 500 to 600 churches in that state alone took in evacuees after Katrina, and he says they just shouldn't be saddled with that kind of a burden.

BRAND: And the religious organizations--do they like this decision or are they fearful that there are some strings attached?

MOON: Well, some of these churches and groups agree with Lynn. They say that they probably won't be applying for the money. Others do say that they're eager to get reimbursed, though. They want to make up for some big spending, everything from electric bills to worn carpets. The head of the North American Mission that works for the Southern Baptist Convention told The Washington Post that volunteer labor is just that, volunteer, and he said there would be no asking the government to pay for it. One of the concerns being expressed by some of these religious leaders is the fear that people might just stop giving donations if they start figuring that, oh, the government will just pick it up anyway.

Today in the "Marketplace" newsroom, we'll be taking a look at how the fractured union movement plans to recruit new members.

BRAND: Bob Moon of public radio's daily business show "Marketplace," and "Marketplace" is produced by American Public Media.

Thanks a lot, Bob.

MOON: Thanks, Madeleine.

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