Faith-Based Spending Goes Relatively Unchecked

By Thomas D. Williams
November 23, 2007

For the past six years, President George W. Bush's administration has spent billions of dollars to largely aid Christian faith-based groups, in assisting prison inmates as well as the poor and less-fortunate persons here and worldwide. Yet many experts and investigators nationwide agree government controls auditing this spending, or checking into whether the religious groups are illegally using this federal funding to promote their faiths, are weak or nonexistent.

Federal funding of a host of non-faith-based social programs can be critical in child or adult health, housing and other subsistence aid to the poor or disadvantaged. However, with tight or even regular federal budgets, waste in one program can adversely impact others.

Several inquiries and complaints dug up a host of systemic dangers and violations of the rules and law resulting in questionable or wasted spending.

In just one instance, a 2006 US Government Accountability Office inquiry discovered: "Four of the 13 faith-based organizations that offered voluntary religious activities - such as prayer or worship - did not appear to understand the requirement to separate these activities in time or location from their program services funded with federal (dollars)." And, the GAO concluded: independent audits apply only to religious organizations spending $500,000 or more. As well, federal administration is costly. "Since fiscal year 2002, the five federal agency centers handling the funds estimated that they had cumulatively expended more than $24 million on administrative activities," the GAO concluded.

But Stephen J. Law, deputy secretary of labor, told the GAO: "Although receiving limited attention in the draft (GAO) report, the most significant aspect of the study is what the GAO's investigation did not find. In all of its research, interviews, document reviews, site visits and other inquiries, the GAO found no evidence of discrimination in favor of or against, any organization on the basis of religion, and no hint of political or other inappropriate motivations within the grant-making process." Nevertheless, that GAO report is hardly the only extraordinary critique of some of the lavish federal faith-based expenditures, which certainly are not habitual with all the faiths or groups seeking federal funding.

An investigation by the Urban Institute, which analyzes social and economic programs and issues, concluded in 2005 that state and local officials found many faith-based groups "lacked the capacity to meet government contracting requirements." Yet, said the institute, its inquiry found "that many state and local policies lack effective oversight of such dimensions as religious content and program participants' ability to choose alternatives to faith-based service providers."

An Iowa federal judge found in December 2006 that a federally funded evangelical program inside a state prison was simultaneously offering help to converts and eliminating rehabilitation programs for inmates failing to show deference toward the evangelical faith. "For all practical purposes," Judge Robert W. Pratt said, "the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates." Pratt's ruling is being appealed by InnerChange.

On the other hand, a Christianity Today article praised InnerChange's work . "(InnerChange) has a proven record of rehabilitation - eight percent recidivism for graduates, according to a University of Pennsylvania study of a similar program in Texas. This compares with more than 60 percent recidivism nationally. The commission understands the urgency of these programs, because this year, 600,000 prisoners will be released. Within three years, more than two-thirds will be re-arrested."

Well-known evangelist Pat Robertson, chairman of the powerful Christian Broadcasting Network, agrees wholeheartedly with the effectiveness of professional religious rehabilitation of hard-core criminal convicts. In fact, Robertson too praised InnerChange's efforts. "It is faith in Christ plus a network of loving Christian support groups rather than psychological rehabilitation that brings about a recidivism rate for inmates helped by Prison Fellowship that is four times more effective than the recidivism rate of inmates released from government-backed, secular prisons without such help," said Robertson on a his site.

Robertson said he sees the same snafus others critical of the federal faith-based initiatives say they are seeing, but he wants to find a legal way to keep those federal dollars flowing to his and other religions. Robertson proposed that groups wanting federal assistance could request "objective" audits by the federal Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The faith-based applicants would have to prove their "financial integrity, record-keeping, supervision and basic accountability." If they proved worthy, he said, they would be listed in an annual government registry.

However, the faith-based initiative and other federal offices' handling of audits were exactly what the GAO suggested needed substantial improvements.

If millions of federal faith-based funds are difficult to track inside the United States, consider the difficulties of scrutinizing those dollars and the rules against using them to promote religion outside the United States.

A year ago, the Inspector General for the US Agency for International Development audited emergency plan, prevention and care activities in four USAID missions in South America and Africa. The inspection found that of 21 USAID-financed operations in fiscal year 2005, thirteen - or 62 percent - were not achieved. What's more, the faith-based funding for Guyana's Emergency Plan activities could not go forward as a result of tardy funding, inadequate advertisements and less-than-capable local organizations handling the grants, the IG said. Also, USAID and an assisting agency did not always provide needed guidance and oversight, the inquiry concluded.

"The ... effort," a program director, S. Ken Yamashita, replied, "arose very rapidly into one of the world's largest and most complicated development programs within just a few years. This accelerated rate of growth has required tremendous innovation in both programmatic and management terms, in addition to ongoing adaptation to new environments and lessons learned. Change of this nature will continue for the foreseeable future, and as it reflects input from country programs, USG agencies and external sources, PEPFAR will continue to improve its processes for performance and quality."

This kind of weak oversight raises questions as well about whether federal support and funding could create serious security problems inside Iraq's war zone. Christian evangelical groups, aided by the Bush administration, have been planned to operate there, or have operated in that dangerous daily war zone in the face of hostile Islamic terrorists. In at least one telltale instance last April, officials of the Department of Defense began promoting an aggressive Christian group that promises to bring its views in a "crusade" to Iraq. Operation Straight Up "is working to help military children and families become stronger through faith-based entertainment," wrote The American Forces Press Service in April. The story appeared on the America Supports You Internet site sponsored by the Pentagon. It was initially reported in an outside publication by The Nation Operation Straight Up is evangelical. Its leaders are former boxer and kick boxer Jonathan Spinks and Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin.

In another instance, the faith-based organization of one of President Bush's religious mentors, Franklin Graham, has received $31,255,596 in overseas assistance from USAID from fiscal years 2001 to 2005, according to an October 2006 four-part Boston Globe investigation.

Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization, provides assistance to the disadvantaged around the world, including work in Iraq. For some, these latter operations inside a dangerous war zone by a naturally intrusive and proselytizing Christian organization in the face of Islamic terrorist groups creates serious questions of security not only for itself, but for US and Iraqi military troops and civilians as well.

However, a spokeswoman for Samaritan's Purse, Barbara Schroeder, described the situation from the organization's perspective: "Samaritan's Purse supports an evangelical church in Baghdad. In addition to the evangelical outreach this church is able to provide to the community, it also furnishes malnourished Muslim and Christian families in the area with hundreds of high-protein food packages every month. Additionally, more than 95,000 gift-filled shoe boxes were sent to needy Iraqi children last year through our Operation Christmas Child project.

"Security in many parts of the world is a concern, and it is our desire that no believer suffer harm because of persecution. We are extremely careful in the way we conduct our projects, especially when there is possible danger for those involved. Our international staff is trained to handle security incidents and we do have a director of security who is aware of conditions around the world and the current situations our staff are experiencing."

More recently, in November, the leaders of six faith-based organizations have come under scrutiny by Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. He is investigating a half-dozen television evangelists to find out if they avoided taxes on for-profit activities or used their ministries for personal gain. While religious organizations are mostly exempt from federal taxes, they must pay taxes if they are involved in for-profit businesses, and employees can't use church property primarily for personal gain.

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said: "I'm following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries. The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces. I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code." The allegations are yet to be validated or dismissed as unreliable.

Five federal agencies, led and controlled by the White House and the US Department of Health and Human Services, administer the faith-based funding. They are parceled out to religious organizations, sometimes directly and other times through state and local governments. Some organizations receiving them have more than one identity. As a result, the web of paperwork and dollar pass-throughs can be a tough thicket to audit.

The rules too are difficult to enforce, based on what those critical of the process, including accountants, say is its weak auditing system. The faith-based recipients are not supposed to use federal dollars to support activities such as prayer, worship, religious instruction or lobbying for converts. They must offer religious activities at different times and locations from services supported by federal dollars. And religious groups cannot discriminate based on their faith when rendering services to the public.

Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in January 2001 to strengthen social work by religious groups. The president, like Robertson a born-again Christian, divined that religious leaders are among the best-qualified to help the underfed, rehabilitate the sick and the imprisoned, and assist the poor and underprivileged in obtaining housing, medical care and the basic needs for living.

"Our new approach is compassionate," Bush told Congress in a budget-funding message on February 28, 2001. "It will reinvigorate our civil society by putting government on the side of faith-based and other local initiatives that work - that actually help Americans escape drugs, lives of crime, poverty and despair." In announcing the faith-based initiatives a month earlier, he said: "... faith-based charities should be able to compete for funding on an equal basis, and in a manner that does not cause them to sacrifice their mission." One of any religion's prime missions, of course, is to promote their particular other-worldly messages.

And, because most faiths, particularly the conservative evangelical leaders Bush feels most inspired by, have prime missions to preach to and sometimes convert the poor and needy, those missions can readily conflict with the US Constitution's mandate separating church and state. The First Amendment says in part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." And, its establishment clause prevents Congress or the president from establishing a national religion or favoring one religion over another. It does not prohibit even-handed federal aid or assistance to religions.


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