Faith-based FEMA -- Action Alert II!
FEMA's messy plan to reimburse churches is financially and constitutionally a river of no return.The watchdog Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national association of freethinkers working to keep church and state separate, is protesting the announcement of an unprecedented change in policy by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to retroactively "reimburse" churches and religious groups for helping evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The policy, which went public this week, follows FEMA's irresponsible decision to prominently promote donations to Rev. Pat ("Take him out") Robertson's "Operation Blessing" at the FEMA website during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The controversial religious group was one of about 22 charities, nearly all of them religious, which FEMA promoted. FEMA, in some instances, simply listed the main offices of individual church denominations, not even bonafide relief charities. Following is a statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, Foundation co-presidents, along with contact information to write/email letters of complaint:
The federal government, which is digging itself deeper and deeper into debt, has announced it will open its wallet retroactively to reimburse churches and religious entities for voluntary charity offered to hurricane victims and evacuees.
FEMA, a division of the richly-funded Department of Homeland Security, was scandalously asleep on its feet when natural disaster (an "act of God"?) struck the United States in September. FEMA's clueless and disgraced director, Michael Brown, who was forced to step down, testified before Congress yesterday that "I pray for these people every night."
FEMA, which initially used hurricane Katrina as an excuse to promote Pat Robertson's charity, is once more using a natural disaster as an opportunity to promote funding for "faith-based" groups. FEMA's messy plan to reimburse churches is financially and constitutionally a river of no return. Who can imagine, given FEMA's recent track record, that the result will be anything but massive tax-paid handouts to churches? Money is fungible. Any tax dollars given as "reimbursement" to churches can (and will) be used for anything--including preaching, proselytizing, or prayer.
Churches receive tax exemption with the understanding that they are engaging in charitable endeavors. Churches which helped evacuees or opened themselves as shelters were doing what churches always claim they are there for.
Churches are not accountable to the government as required by other tax-exempt groups. Non-church groups receiving tax exemption must file detailed annual 990 statements showing where the money has gone. The IRS automatically waives this requirement for all churches and church denominations. Imagine a church which voluntarily opened its doors, in some cases to their own congregation members, now charging the government--which does not tax its buildings--for rent!
While some churches and denominations are to be praised for publicly spurning FEMA's offer at this point, the temptation will be too great for most to withstand. The Salvation Army is clamoring to be "repaid." This church already is the major recipient of government contracts for shelters. It was on FEMA's list of charities and it continues to openly solicit donations from the public to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Isn't this double-billing carried to a new height?
There should be no payment or reimbursement where there was no contractual agreement. Retroactive reimbursement for voluntarily undertaken charity is no way to run a business, much less a government.
Imagine if the many volunteers who went to the Gulf Coast to help, taking time off out of the goodness of their hearts, now demanded that Uncle Sam pay them back wages for missed work, transportation costs, hotel bills, and out-of-pocket expenses! What honorable volunteer would consider such a scheme? Yet such a scenario parallels precisely what churches and their fundamentalist government allies have demanded.
Most disappointing, the American Red Cross openly lobbied FEMA to reimburse churches, contending that many cooperated with them. Yet Red Cross received permission from such churches; they didn't commandeer them. Millions of Americans sent money to the Red Cross (including the Freedom From Religion Foundation), as one of the few secular groups promoted by FEMA. Red Cross is free to turn over some of the vast sums it has collected to grant to hard-luck churches with which it has partnered. But Red Cross has no business urging the government to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state, to raid from the public till to benefit churches.
Or why don't these churches apply for grants from Operation Blessing, which made a windfall off of Hurricane Katrina, thanks to FEMA's bizarre endorsement? What about the other religious charities and church denominations FEMA directed Americans to donate to? Individual churches should be passing the plate to their denominational headquarters or these government-touted "faith-based" charities.
This unprecedented change in public policy will open the floodgates on future demands by religious groups and churches for "retroactive" reimbursement for charitable activities undertaken without government contract or public oversight.
If a church expects and accepts payment from the taxpayers, then it is no longer charitable.
Use some of the talking points above for a letter to the editor or to public representatives. Or contact FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security or the American Red Cross:
R. David Paulison
500 C St, SW
Washington DC 20172
Complaint line: 202/646-3661
Fax line: 202/646-3930
Secretary Michael Chertoff
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington DC 20528
Comment line: 202/282-8495
Marsha J. Evans
The American Red Cross National Headquarters
2025 E St NW
Washington DC 20006
Donation line (you may wish to complain if you donated)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.