Americans United Criticizes Lack Of Accountability In Fema Funding Of Religious Groups

Hurricane Victims Should Not Be Subjected To Unwanted Proselytism By Government-Funded Church Groups, Says Watchdog Group

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today sharply criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for its plan to fund hurricane relief efforts by churches without adequate accountability and safeguards to protect the evacuees.

“After FEMA’s ineptitude in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s distressing to see the Bush administration making even more blunders,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Before you turn over millions of taxpayer dollars to churches, there must be strict accountability and safeguards to protect the civil and religious liberty rights of those who need help.”

The Washington Post reported today that FEMA plans to broadly reimburse houses of worship for their relief efforts. The move, the newspaper noted, “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.”

Many religious groups, Lynn noted, are taking part in relief efforts and deserve the thanks of the American people. But the new FEMA directive, he said, is too open-ended and could leave storm victims vulnerable to aggressive proselytism.

“Some religious organizations are openly using the hurricane relief efforts to win new converts,” Lynn said. “If these groups can’t separate their evangelism from their relief work, they should not be eligible for public funding. People displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita should not be subjected to unwanted, high-pressure religious coercion as the price of getting help from their own government.”

Lynn noted the following examples:

  • According to Baptist Press news service, Southern Baptist aid workers distributed 11,000 evangelistic tracts and 1,200 Bibles in the hurricane-ravaged areas and saw “45 new professions of faith in Christ.”

    In a Sept. 20 report, Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged church members to proselytize while providing aid. “When you go and you give the cup of cold water, you be sure you give a witness of Jesus Christ,” Welch said. “Don’t just smile and say, ‘I go to church.’ You give a witness of Jesus Christ to those people because the water, the beanie weenies and the food will run out, but whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again.” 

    Welch noted that the denomination had launched an evangelism campaign at its 2005 annual meeting, adding, “Do you think that could be providential? Out of the sovereignty of God, that He’d take the largest denomination in the world and all of a sudden begin to focus them on being prepared for a great opportunity to win and witness and baptize like never before? I think so.”

  • Evangelist Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse has been distributing gift bags to displaced children. The bag includes evangelistic tracts and a stuffed lamb that plays “Jesus Loves Me.” Graham urged churches participating in the relief efforts to include evangelism. “[I]n everything you do,” he said, “I encourage you to remember that your primary purpose is to share the redeeming love of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

  • TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” reported that church-based evangelism even extends to government relief workers. According to a Sept. 6 report, Zion Bethany Church is providing housing for emergency workers and the workers find a tract on their pillows each night. Tonja Miles, a faith-based charity CEO working with the church, told an interviewer, “[Emergency workers are] going out, and they’re seeing devastation, so we wanted to start something that when they can come in, it’s comfortable. We have a great meal; we have the word of God just all over the place.”

Lynn said FEMA must not underwrite hard-sell evangelism efforts. He noted that the Bush administration has always claimed that faith-based groups that get government dollars will not be allowed to proselytize. The FEMA directive, in contrast, contains no limitations whatsoever on evangelism with public money.

“The federal government cannot start dropping blank checks in the collection plates of churches,” Lynn said. “FEMA has an obligation to exercise appropriate safeguards and accountability. Hurricane victims deserve no less, and taxpayers should demand it.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.