Tuesday, September 27, 2005

FEMA To Pay Churches For Charity Work

In a move that has rankled civil libertarians, FEMA announced that it will reimburse churches and other religious organizations that have opened their doors to provide shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Washington Post reported that "it would mark the first time that the government has made large-scale payments to religious groups for helping to cope with a domestic natural disaster." According to the Post report, civil libertarians complain that FEMA is "trying to restore its battered reputation by playing to religious conservatives."

Under the plan announced by FEMA, churches will be eligible for federal reimbursement "if they operated emergency shelters, food distribution centers or medical facilities at the request of state or local governments in the three states that have declared emergencies -- Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama." In those cases, "a wide range of costs would be available for reimbursement, including labor costs incurred in excess of normal operations, rent for the facility and delivery of essential needs like food and water," FEMA spokesman Eugene Kinerney said in an e-mail according to the Post.

Fortunately, not all churches are looking for a federal handout for their charitable efforts. "Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer," said the Rev. Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. "We would never ask the government to pay for it." While some churches are eager to get the federal funds, the Post reported that "[o]thers said they probably would not apply for the funds, fearing donations would dry up if the public came to believe they were receiving government handouts."

As a contributor to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and my own church for these very purposes, I find it appalling that any religious organization would expect taxpayers to reimburse them for their charitable efforts. They are already afforded tax-exempt status, and their contributions are made tax-exempt so they can carry on their charitable and religious purposes. To expect the taxpayers to reimburse them for their volunteer efforts flies in the face of their charitable existence, not to mention the apparent violation of the separation of church and state. One can only imagine the unnecessary expenses the federal government will wind up paying for the benefit of greedy churches and self-important clergy. This ought to prove to be quite a boon for the church-building industry. Jimmy Swaggart is probably already wetting his palms.

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