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“Religious pork”: Group questions Dicks’ earmark to Tacoma Rescue Mission

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on April 23, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
April 23, 2010 4:43 pm

A nonpartisan nonprofit that hails itself as “a religious liberty watchdog group” has cited a $350,000 federal budget appropriation to the Tacoma Rescue Mission among 10 earmarks nationwide that “raise constitutional issues about inappropriate public funding of religion.”

In a press release dated Thursday, Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted it has sent letters to Obama administration officials requesting they investigate the earmarks to ensure they’re constitutional.

“We ask that you carefully investigate these earmarks and that you impose any restrictions necessary to ensure that the earmarks satisfy all legal requirements,” the press release quotes the group’s Senior Litigation Counsel, Alex Luchenitser, as writing to administration officials.

David Curry, executive director of the rescue mission, largely dismissed the group’s concerns as misplaced while explaining to me in a phone call today why the funding is legal.

“Occassionally, someone will bring something like this up,” Curry said. “We’re a faith-based organization and have been for 98 years. We provide humanitarian assistance, but there’s no religious or faith requirement to receive any service we offer. To me it’s a non-issue.”

Originally requested by Democrat Congressman Norm Dicks, the 2010 budget appropriation approved by Congress will help the mission build “The Adams Square Family Center,” a facility with 36-units of housing to shelter homeless families and provide them with various services, according to Curry and Dicks’ website.

The new center will replace the mission’s aging family shelter. Dicks initially sought $500,000 for the project. George Behan, a spokesman for Dicks, did not immediately return a phone message left at the congressman’s Washington D.C. office this afternoon.

In particular, the Americans United group has raised questions about the mission’s earmark because “(t)he Mission’s activities include `shar[ing] our Christian faith,’” the press release states. “Within the shelter building itself, the Mission offers `daily encouragement through counseling, spiritual guidance and assurance of hope.’”

After speaking with Curry today, I spoke with Luchenitser, the group’s lawyer.  I summarized for him what Curry had told me, including that Curry said the mission is regularly scrutinized by all of its public funders over the religious issue to ensure any public funding to the group is appropriate.

(“The state, the county, they are very saavy about these things,” Curry told me. “Every funder we have ask these questions, because they don’t want public funding going to any religious program. They very carefully survey us about these very things.”)

Luchenitser said it’s quite possible the mission’s earmark is fine. But he noted that just because the mission doesn’t “require” recipients of its services to engage in religious activities doesn’t necessarily mean the funding is appropriate.

“The issue is whether or not the mission engages in religious activity in the building that is going to be supported by this earmark,” said Luchenitser, noting that the mission’s website states it conducts faith-based activities in some of its buildings.

“Just because a religious activity may be voluntary, doesn’t solve the constitutional problem,” he added.  “If the mission has religious programming in the building this earmark is intended to support, that would pose a serious constitutional issue. If it’s secular, there wouldn’t be any constitutional problem.”

That’s all American United is asking the Obama administration to review — that such constitutionally required separation exists, he said. But if there’s any crossover, the group wants the administration to restrict the use of public funds for the mission’s project.

After this post initially was published, Curry called to tell me there would be no religious activity in the building funded by the earmark. He previously noted the mission doesn’t intend to rebut the group’s request for an investigation.

“We’re not even going to respond it,” he said. “We don’t see this as an issue.”

According to its website, Americans United is “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.” The group’s board of trustees includes religious and non-religious citizens, and it notes in its press release that its “concerns are focused on constitutional standards, not hostility to religion.”

Here’s the full text of the group’s press release:

For Immediate Release
April 22, 2010

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Contact: Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Sandhya Bathija
202.466.3234 telephone
202.466.2587 fax
www.au.org

CONGRESSIONAL EARMARKS FOR RELIGIOUS GROUPS
RAISE CHURCH-STATE CONCERNS, SAYS AMERICANS UNITED

Watchdog Group Urges Obama Administration To Block Ten Grants
Unless Constitutional Safeguards Can Be Enforced

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today called on the Obama administration to investigate ten earmarks for religious schools and ministries that raise constitutional issues about inappropriate public funding of religion.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and three other cabinet officers, Americans United urged the administration to examine the congressional earmarks and block the funding unless appropriate legal safeguards can be put in place.

“Taxpayers should never be forced to support religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Congress should not approve earmark funding for projects that advance religion. Religious pork is bad for America’s constitutional health.”

The earmarks include:

• Atlanta Christian College (East Point, Ga.): $350,000 for curriculum development and technology upgrades. The college seeks to “educate students for Christ-centered service and leadership throughout the world” and “every degree includes a major or minor in Biblical Studies.”

• Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood, N.J.): $275,000 for an initiative to expand the rabbinical school’s job training and career counseling services. The services focus on preparing its students to be teachers and administrators in secondary Torah schools and institutions of higher Talmudic studies as practicing rabbis and as experts in rabbinical jurisprudence.

• Grace College and Theological Seminary (Winona Lake, Ind.): $150,000 for curriculum development, technology upgrades and additional course offerings. Grace College is an evangelical Christian liberal arts college that discriminates among applicants based on religion.

• Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch (Minot, N.D.): $475,000 to expand a program for high-risk elementary school students. The Christian ministry’s programs include prayer, Bible studies, counseling and discussion concerning God’s plan for participants.

• Men of Valor Academy (Oakland, Calif.): $100,000 to expand building trades instruction that can only be taken by individuals who first complete a program that includes Christian teachings.

• Team Focus, Inc. (Mobile Ala.): four earmarks for mentoring projects in four states: $500,000 each for projects in South Carolina and Alabama, $400,000 for one in Mississippi, and $100,000 for one in Texas. Team Focus is a faith-based non-profit organization that apparently includes Bible study and prayer in its mentoring programs for young men.

• Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch (Minot, N.D.): In addition to the Department of Education earmark for high-risk youth intervention programs described above, this ministry was designated to receive a $200,000 Juvenile Justice grant from the Department of Justice to fund the same programs.

• Wesley Biblical Seminary (Jackson, Miss.): $250,000 to support programming costs associated with the Christian seminary’s effort to establish a “multi-cultural center.”

• United Methodist Children’s Home (Selma, Ala.): $150,000 for security and information technology improvements. The ministry Web site explains that part of its mission is to “teach [the children] about God, their heavenly Father” and notes that the Home provides spiritual life and development as an important part of its ministry by “connecting [the] children with local United Methodist Churches in their area so they may participate in worship services, Sunday school, and children and youth activities.”

• Tacoma Rescue Mission (Tacoma, Wash.): $350,000 to complete construction on a shelter building. The Mission’s activities include “shar[ing] our Christian faith.” Within the shelter building itself, the Mission offers “daily encouragement through counseling, spiritual guidance and assurance of hope.”

In the letter to the Obama administration, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser wrote, “We ask that you carefully investigate these earmarks and that you impose any restrictions necessary to ensure that the earmarks satisfy all legal requirements. If such restrictions cannot feasibly be put in place for one or more of the earmarks, then, in order to comply with the law, please refrain from funding those earmarks.”

In addition to Holder, AU wrote to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Luchenitser emphasized that AU’s concerns are focused on constitutional standards, not hostility to religion.

“We strongly believe,” he wrote, “that religious institutions play a vital role in American society, and we applaud the work that many such institutions perform in providing much-needed social services to our country’s most disadvantaged citizens. We emphasize, however, that in considering whether to fund the efforts of such organizations, the government must be mindful of the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”

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.

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