9.20.2005

Faith-Based Charities Use Katrina Tragedy in Grab for Federal Money


Could the ability of faith-based charities to respond to Katrina so readily and with so many donations have anything to do with the fact that FEMA's recommended Katrina charities were almost all faith-based? And the Bush Administration's poor response to Katrina only made the faith-based charities it championed shine brighter. If the Bush Administration gave you an advantage over secular charities in responding to Katrina, it would be dishonest to pretend that quick response was unassisted and, therefore, proves your worthiness for additional money - money that violates the separation of church and state. Dishonesty and greed are sins.

Groups Lobby for Faith-Based Initiative

from The Associated Press

Washington - Where the government stumbled, churches rushed in. That's the message religious disaster relief groups already are bringing to Capitol Hill, hoping the dramatic example of how they sped aid to Hurricane Katrina survivors along the Gulf Coast will build new momentum for President Bush's drive to expand federal funding for faith-based groups.

"There's always an emotional sensitivity in times of crisis. If that's what it takes to get it passed, so be it," said Major General George Hood, a top official with the Salvation Army, a lead agency in Katrina relief.

Critics are alarmed by this latest push, saying the work of churches following the tragedy - while heroic - does not resolve the complex constitutional questions surrounding Bush's faith-based proposals. But religious leaders contend with such overwhelming need, lawmakers must act quickly.

Bob Reccord, who is coordinating the massive relief operation for the Southern Baptist Convention, plans to lobby federal lawmakers and last week testified with Hood before a Senate subcommittee on behalf of the CARE Act. The legislation would provide tax breaks and other incentives to Americans making charitable donations, and is part of a broader campaign to ease restrictions on federal grants for social service providers with a religious mission.

Reccord and Hood told lawmakers about volunteers who put themselves at risk along the Gulf Coast to save others, and about church members serving millions of meals to evacuees. Except for a few government supplies, the costs were covered by private donations alone.

Other religious leaders deeply involved in the relief effort say barriers to federal funding are hurting the most vulnerable storm victims.

"If the president wants to really put his money where his mouth is on the faith-based initiative, now is the time," said the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the The Purpose Driven Life. "Long after the Red Cross pulls out and FEMA pulls out, the churches are still going to be there."

Bishop T.D. Jakes, who gave the sermon Friday at the Washington National Cathedral service marking Bush's
day of prayer for victims, has told the president that more money should be channeled directly to religious groups responding to the tragedy.

"I felt it was incumbent upon me to share with him that the faith-based community is working with 10 percent, or a tithe, of people's income, while the government is working with 30 percent of everyone's income," said Jakes, a best-selling author and pastor of The Potter's House, a 30,000-member Dallas megachurch. He has been working with Dallas city officials, religious relief groups and individual churches to raise money, find housing for survivors and bring them food, clothes and other aid.

Said Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: "This validates what President Bush has been saying all along."

"President Bush feels like 'Let's open up these funds to all comers,'" Towey said.

Religious relief groups plan to compare their flexibility to the bureaucracy that many have blamed for the government's sluggish response. Reccord, who is overseeing the work of 5,000 Southern Baptist volunteers, called his operation a "speedboat" to the government's "battleship." Reccord and others also have suggested that their volunteers are more dedicated than some government workers, because they are motivated by a deep faith.

"For people who are employed with disaster relief, it is to some degree a job," Reccord said. "For volunteer faith-based people, it is a passion and a sense of calling."

Opponents, however, say it would be a mistake to set policy based on the Katrina response.

They contend secular relief groups also have been key contributors to relief efforts, as have some arms of government, such as the Coast Guard, whose members spent days under dangerous conditions plucking hundreds of New Orleans residents off the roofs of flooded homes.

James Dunn, who served in Washington for more than two decades with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which works to protect the separation of church and state, said that among the unresolved constitutional issues is Bush's desire to allow church groups to consider religion in hiring, even if they receive federal grants.

Critics say that's discrimination.

"I think what's happening is they're trying to dismantle the civil rights program without saying it," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Dunn fears few other lawmakers will have the courage to make such arguments in the emotional post-Katrina environment, with federal, state and local officials on the defensive because of all that went wrong.

"They're all shaking in their boots because of the rejection by people of government in general and because the government did fail to respond appropriately," said Dunn, who teaches at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. "It's not a timely moment to be critical about any good thing being done."

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