Keep state and church separate in funding charities
Governor Lingle has praised federal funding for faith-based charities.
RELIGIOUS groups played an important role in providing relief to hurricane victims, reviving President Bush's policy of allowing more flexibility in federal funding of such organizations. Governor Lingle is encouraging local faith-based groups to apply for such assistance, but it should not blur the line between church and state.
The governor supported the White House policy before 450 people attending the state- and federal-sponsored Hawaii Faith-Based and Community Initiative Conference. She praised Bush for standing up to "say we have to stop discriminating against faith-based organizations when we are talking about the use of federal funds."
Many charities affiliated with religions have received large sums from local, state and federal governments for decades by establishing nonprofit corporations apart from the church. They have provided services without religious content or preferences. Other churches operate charities directly without government assistance.
After weeks of cajoling by the American Red Cross, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other Republicans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to reimburse churches and other religious groups for providing shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita at the request of state or local governments in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The decision has been criticized by civil liberties groups as crossing the line between church and state. One critic accused the Bush administration of discriminating against secular nonprofits to lead the relief effort in favor of faith-based organizations that were less experienced in responding to disasters.
Such assistance may have been warranted because of the extraordinary relief provided by churches while FEMA stumbled following the hurricanes. For example, Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., provided shelter for 200 evacuees and volunteer workers in its sanctuary and fed 400 people a day at the request of the Red Cross and local officials.
Suzie Harvey, the parish administrator, told the Washington Post that the church did not anticipate the financial crunch, with nearly a fourth of its 650 members rendered homeless. She said the church would apply to FEMA for reimbursement, and it should be granted, regardless of whether the relief included prayers or preaching.
But that should not set a precedent for future government funding of faith-based organizations. Concerns expressed by the Rev. Mike Young of First Unitarian Church of Honolulu that religious groups could use "subtle pressure" on people "to be religious in a particular way" to receive their services are valid.
Some church-based charities are leery about being compromised by federal guidelines against mingling of religion and charitable services. The government should give them reason to be leery.