The Freedom From Religion Foundation has called on the U.S. Agency for International Development to investigate allegations that a federally funded quake relief project in El Salvador is overtly proselytizing.
According to an expose in The New York Times (March 5), AID has granted more than $200,000 to Samaritan's Purse, whose president and CEO is Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham.
In a letter to Don Pressley, Acting Administrator of AID, the Freedom From Religion Foundation called for an immediate probe and audit, and urged him to freeze further aid. The Christian ministry reportedly is slated to receive a second similar grant to continue its Christian mission in El Salvador.
Samaritan Purse's website describes itself as "a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people . . . with the purpose of sharing God's love through his son, Jesus Christ . . . to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."
According to Times reporter David Gonzalez's lead sentence, the evangelical relief group "has blurred the line between church and state as its volunteers preach, pray and seek converts among people desperate for help."
"This is not just a misuse of the public's money to promote religion, but to promote evangelical Protestantism in a predominately Catholic country," the Foundation wrote Pressley.
"If Samaritan's Purse wishes to conduct prayer meetings, to convert Catholics to Protestantism and to 'preach the word of God and receive the word of God,' it must do its mission without public funding, endorsement and support," said the Foundation.
Especially indicting is the statement of a needy villager quoted by the Times: "They said a lot, but the principal thing was god and that earthly things do not matter."
"We imagine Franklin Graham has many nice earthly things, and that it would matter a great deal to him were he homeless from an earthquake, and expected to attend Catholic mass to receive tax-paid help," noted the Madison, Wis.-based Foundation.
Also quoted by the Times was Dr. Paul Chiles, director for Samaritan Purse's project in El Salvador: "We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization. We can't really separate the two. We really believe Jesus Christ told us to do relief work."
Granting tax money to a pervasively sectarian relief group is being justified by "charitable choice," promoted by Pres. Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms. In its letter of complaint, the Foundation noted that Bush's scheme to promote "charitable choice" beyond welfare reform at the federal level has not been authorized by Congress. "Nor has the untested concept itself passed Constitutional muster."
The Foundation currently has a lawsuit in federal court challenging the use of welfare reform money to subsidize an overt Christian ministry for addicts, which will be the first "charitable choice" lawsuit to be adjudicated in the nation.
"If it wants public money, this Christian group needs to play by the rules, to create a secular arm and be scrupulous in separating its private religious agenda from its public purpose of helping disaster victims," said a Foundation spokesperson. Religious activities conducted as part of federally-funded programs are believed to violate federal and contract guidelines. The Foundation has made a request to review the project application and AID regulations on religion under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Don Pressley, Acting Administrator
U.S. Agency for International Development
Ronald Reagan Bldg
Washington DC 20523
202/712-4810 Fax 202/216-3524