Faith-Based Groups to Receive Katrina Funds

The Bush administration plans to reimburse charities — including faith-based groups — for some of the expenditures they have incurred to provide relief for Hurricane Katrina. Some experts fear the funding raises constitutional issues.

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Churches and religious groups that opened their doors to Hurricane Katrina's victims have been showered with praise. They've also been running up a lot of expenses, and the Bush administration wants to allow some religious groups to be reimbursed. That's leading some critics to contend the White House is using Katrina to push an agenda. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

It's getting a little quieter for Eula Smith(ph), the pastor's wife at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. The church is sheltering only three dozen evacuees now, down from about 80. It still makes 400 meals a day for its residents and others, and all in all, she says, it's a full-service shelter.

Ms. EULA SMITH (Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church): We give them clothes, we give them medical services, child care. We give them transportation to wherever they want to go, counseling, Internet services, long-distance phone services, anything else that they may have wanted to do at that time, we've done it.

HAGERTY: Eula Smith says the church has spent about $30,000 so far. She's confident the church will cover its costs through donations, but she wouldn't be averse to a little reimbursement from the government.

Ms. SMITH: Not if they wanted to give it away.

HAGERTY: And they might be giving it away under a White House policy that would allow FEMA to give money directly to churches and other religious organizations that helped the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Jim Towey, who heads the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says the federal government would only reimburse those groups that had been asked to help out. He says if the government can reimburse secular charities, it should help religious ones as well.

Mr. JIM TOWEY (President's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives): And you got to realize, for some of these faith-based groups that operate on a shoestring budget, they don't have any cushion of resources to all of a sudden see their auditorium or their school hall or their cafeteria trashed by two weeks of sheltering people there. They were happy to do the work, but they've got to be reimbursed for the costs that they incurred.

Mr. IRA LUPU (George Washington University): To the extent the reimbursement is for secular goods, there is nothing wrong with it.

HAGERTY: Ira Lupu is a constitutional law scholar at George Washington University. Giving shelter, medicine and clothing are fine, he says. The problem arises when churches, say, talk about God. For example, Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical charity founded by Franklin Graham, has been giving children gift bags with religious tracts and toy lambs that play "Jesus Loves Me." Samaritan's Purse has not said it would seek FEMA reimbursement, although it has received millions of dollars for other government contracts in the past. Lupu adds that there can be a problem with even subtler activities, such as giving spiritual counseling to evacuees and then asking for reimbursement.

Mr. LUPU: Spiritual solace and comfort is outside the jurisdiction of government. Government shouldn't be doing it and government shouldn't be paying other people to do it.

HAGERTY: Trent Stamp, who heads Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, says Katrina has allowed the White House to, quote, "throw the rules out the window." He says when the dust settles, it might be hard to tease apart the secular help from the spiritual.

Mr. TRENT STAMP (Charity Navigator): Oh, I think it's impossible to separate the dollars. I mean, you know, the Salvation Army says a prayer before they serve a meal and they ask everyone to join in, and I don't think there's any way that you could ever say, you know, `Well, this minute of prayer is going to be off the books.'

HAGERTY: And Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, sees more sinister motives at work.

Mr. BARRY LYNN (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State): Frankly, the hurricane and its aftermath have become the justification for this administration to push ideological viewpoints that they've never been able to successfully get the Congress to endorse. That's everything from the faith-based initiative government funding of religious ministries to vouchers for private religious schools.

HAGERTY: Jim Towey at the White House says all these fears are overblown. FEMA will not pay for preaching time or evangelism. As to ideology, he says, it's critics like Lynn who have an agenda.

Mr. TOWEY: Critics of the president's faith-based initiative are using Hurricane Katrina to try to divert attention away from the obvious, and the obvious is these groups were very effective in salving the wounds of those hurt by Hurricane Katrina.

HAGERTY: In the end, he believes, most churches will take a, quote, "reward in heaven" for their work, not a check from the government. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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