Extremists at the grandiosely named Americans United for Separation of Church and State are at it again. The group, best known for its efforts to drive religion from the public square, now wants to make sure no faith-based organizations can be reimbursed for rescuing and caring for thousands of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has announced plans to allow some faith-based groups to recoup some of the money they've spent feeding, clothing, housing and counseling more than half a million people stranded in the worst national disaster this country has ever faced.
FEMA officials have said religious organizations can only be reimbursed if they operated shelters or undertook other emergency activities at the request of state and local officials in the affected states, but that's not enough to satisfy the rigid secularists. "What really frosts me about all this," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, complained to The Washington Post, "is, here is an administration that didn't do its job and now is trying to dig itself out by making right-wing groups happy." He might have been more honest had he admitted that what really angers the anti-religion Left is how much more effective private and religious groups are in getting things done than Big Government ever can be.
While Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was trying to figure out how and when to exercise her authority to call in the National Guard and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was cussing out the feds on a local radio station, the Red Cross and Salvation Army were already moving food and medical supplies to the region. While FEMA was busy giving anti-sexual harassment training to prospective volunteers before they could report for duty in the affected areas, churches and missions were setting up cots and cooking meals for their desperate neighbors.
Joe Becker, senior vice president for preparedness and response at the Red Cross, says that he believes "it's appropriate for the federal government to assist the faith community because of the scope of the effort and how long it's lasting." According to Becker, churches normally only provide shelter and other services for the first few days after a disaster before the Red Cross steps in to take over. But these storms have been so devastating that church facilities are being used indefinitely to care for the evacuees. But Lynn told the Post that asking for reimbursement was "a strange definition of charity," and that he didn't think it was appropriate for the government to "pay for their good works."
In fact, the government has a long history of working with sectarian organizations to care for the needy. In 1980, Congress passed legislation that allowed groups such as Catholic Charities, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and World Vision to assist refugees to the United States, providing direct financial aid through these groups, as well as training and other services. President Bush's faith-based initiative modestly expanded the ability of religious groups to deliver social services. All religious groups that receive government money, however, must strictly ensure that it not be used to fund inherently religious activities, must separate out funds that are used for religious purposes and demonstrate that they have done so to the government's satisfaction. These groups can't discriminate in providing services to those who don't share their religious views or belong to different religions, although they may restrict their hiring to co-religionists.
Faith-based groups are often a more effective provider of services to the needy than large, impersonal government bureaucracies. If there was any lesson learned from Katrina and Rita it ought to be that government frequently doesn't perform up to expectations. It makes no sense to penalize the very groups that readily took up the slack when government and even large private groups like the Red Cross were overwhelmed at the crisis that engulfed this country. In fact, the government ought to look to expand the reach of these groups to serve the victims in rebuilding their lives.