Religious Earmarks on the Rise

Critics Worry That Federal Funds Are Subsidizing Evangelism

Posted October 30, 2007 at 6:35pm

When Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) pulled a controversial $100,000 earmark two weeks ago for a state organization promoting creationist theories, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other groups hailed it as a significant step in maintaining the traditional divisions between the government and religious organizations.

But despite that victory, pro-separation activists say that in recent years lawmakers have increasingly sought to back overtly religious organizations — many of which claim proselytizing or religious conversions as their primary function — with hundreds of thousands of federal dollars through the earmarking process.

A review of fiscal 2008 appropriations bills shows that scores of religious organizations across the country are being singled out by Members of the House and Senate for federal funding. These earmarks cover a wide array of organizations and activities — from earmarks for local Catholic Charities USA organizations to funding for research programs at private universities to faith-based drug treatment and jobs programs.

And while the majority of the funding goes to projects that are either secular or ecumenical in nature, a number of the earmarks appear to be going to groups whose primary mission is evangelical.

Dena Sher, state legislative counsel for Americans United, argued that while many faith-based organizations are structured in such a way as to avoid having federal funds subsidize religious activities, groups whose central focus is religious in nature have had an increasing number of earmarks steered their way.

“The trend of earmarking federal funding for faith-based organizations is a real problem,” Sher said. “Under the Constitution, government funding cannot be used to endorse religion; it cannot be used for religious activities; and it cannot be used to construct buildings for religious purposes.

“Earmarked projects are especially vulnerable to abuse because the earmarked organizations don’t go through the normal application process and thus aren’t subject to any real oversight.”

Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, agreed, saying Congress enters into dangerous territory when it begins designating specific religious groups to receive funding. “Earmarks are about picking winners and losers, and it gets more touchy when religion comes into it. That starts raising red flags,” Ellis said, adding that lawmakers are “marrying two concerning elements into one dream team that raises the bar and the scrutiny that these deserve.”

The ‘Jesus Factor’

Critics of the increase in religious earmarks acknowledge that not all funding items cause an inherent conflict. For instance, this year dozens of YMCA, YWCA and Catholic Charities affiliates across the country account for hundreds of thousands in federal earmarks. But most of those dollars will go toward the rehabilitation of existing buildings or programs that are nonspiritual in nature.

Additionally, critics point out that these and other similar groups have long-standing relationships with the federal government and operate in such a way as to avoid making religious conversion or activities a central component of their programs.

But along with these earmarks, Members have included funding for groups that at their core are spiritual in nature — and that require participants to convert in order to fully benefit from their programs.

“We’re not talking about money going to your local YMCA or something,” Ellis said.

One such earmark was Vitter’s $100,000 provision to fund a science education program by the Louisiana Family Forum. The LFF has long opposed the teaching of evolution-only science curricula in state schools, and the grant would have gone toward a project to encourage schools to teach creationist theories of development as well. Vitter pulled the plug on the earmark in response to pressure from the ACLU and other organizations.

Likewise, over the past several years state and local affiliates of Teen Challenge USA have accounted for millions in federal dollars. According to its mission statement, the group offers a “comprehensive Christian faith-based solution to life-controlling drug and alcohol problems in order to become productive members of society. By applying biblical principles, Teen Challenge endeavors to help people become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially adjusted, physically well, and spiritually alive.”

Founded in 1958 by the Rev. David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge’s program — which is run by independent franchises in numerous states and urban centers such as New York and Chicago — uses what the group calls the “Jesus Factor” to help participants in the program break their addiction to drugs and alcohol. Indeed, the organization acknowledges that conversion to their version of Christianity is the ultimate “cure” for addiction and the goal of their efforts.

“Teen Challenge is based foundationally on a literal interpretation of the Protestant Bible. It is our belief that applying the principles of Scripture to a person’s life will enrich their life and provide them with a path of a personal relationship with God,” according to a description of the program of the group’s Web site.

“Certainly people of other faiths may enter the program but, as they are informed of the nature of the program, they voluntarily choose to participate. It is not required that a student have a conversion experience to enter or complete, but conversion is regarded as the greatest hope for breaking an addiction.”

Wilkerson’s approach raised eyebrows in 2001 when he declared that Jewish participants who had converted to Christianity were “completed Jews,” according to news accounts.

George Thomas, the business director for Teen Challenge USA, said that while the national organization does not take federal funding, earmarked dollars for nonspiritual projects like housing of addicts should be allowed.

“If there was taxpayer money being given directly to a Teen Challenge program for something … nonspiritual in nature like transportation or housing, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said, although he did acknowledge federal spending on scripture programs would raise questions. “If it was going for something faith-based … like teaching the scripture I would personally have a problem with it.”

This year, earmarks for Teen Challenge programs in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota and Indiana account for $500,000 in federal funding for building projects, teen outreach and substance abuse programs, according to Congressional records.

‘Advancement of the Kingdom of God’

As another cautionary tale, Americans United’s Sher points to World Impact, Inc., a Christian ministry organization, which this year accounts for $1.9 million in earmarks from California, Kansas and Missouri Members of the House and Senate.

Founded in 1971 by Dr. Keith Phillips, World Impact — which declined to comment for this report — describes itself on its Web site as “a Christian missions organization dedicated to ministering God’s love in the inner cities of America. Its purpose is to honor and glorify God and delight in Him in the inner cities by knowing God and making Him known. World Impact ministers cross-culturally to people unreached by the gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism, follow-up, discipleship and indigenous church-planting. World Impact empowers urban disciples; training leadership for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.”

The church has ministries in several California cities; Dallas, Wichita, Kan., St. Louis, Newark, N.J., and Chester, Pa., as well as camps set up to train missionaries. They have also established “Christian schools” in Chester, Newark and Los Angeles.

According to its Web site, the group’s ministries also provide a number of community services, including tutoring and mentoring services, drug treatment, vocational training, GED courses and after-school programs for at-risk youths.

Like many beneficiaries of Congressional earmarks, World Impact has developed key ties to lawmakers and their former aides that have proved beneficial. For instance, Reps. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) are members of the Honorary Committee for World Impact’s Humanitarian Awards Dinner this year, hosted by actor Craig T. Nelson.

According to Congressional records, Becerra included in this year’s Commerce, Justice and science spending bill a $75,000 earmark for World Impact’s Youth Gang Prevention program in California.

Although Tiahrt does not appear to have secured an earmark for the group this year, according to its November 2006 “Compassion Ministries” bulletin, the Kansas lawmaker helped the group secure a 35-foot “Mobile Medical Coach” emblazoned with the slogan “Health care in Jesus’ name.” At the May 2006 dedication of the vehicle, Tiahrt, “whose help was vital in making this dream become a reality, expressed his ongoing support” for the project, according to the bulletin.

Similarly, through its lobbying firm Russ Reid, World Impact this year hired Topeka lobbyist David Kensinger to make the rounds on Capitol Hill.

In addition to being a prominent figure in state politics, Kensinger has a long-standing personal and professional connection to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — he has worked on Brownback’s Congressional campaigns and on his official staff, and he also was an informal adviser to Brownback during his failed presidential bid this year.

According to Senate lobbying records, since November 2002, World Impact has paid Russ Reid, a firm with strong Republican ties that has represented dozens of religious organizations over the years, more than $420,000 in lobbying fees. But it wasn’t until this year, when Russ Reid brought Kensinger in as a consultant to work on the World Impact account, that Brownback and other lawmakers took up their cause in earnest.

For instance, Brownback included in this year’s Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill an $850,000 earmark for the group’s Morning Star Ranch in Florence, Kan. Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) — whose district includes Florence — also secured $50,000 in the House’s version of the THUD bill for “expansion and renovation of student homes and staff houses” at the ranch, according to Congressional records.

The ranch’s Web site says it is a “Christian training center for inner-city young men ages 18-25. Additionally, it serves as one of World Impact’s camping facilities. The facilities are available to other Christian groups. … Following the example of Jesus and in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:2, the Ranch disciples young men from inner cities across America. These young men are prepared to assume roles of servant leadership in their families; in their place of vocation; in their community; and in their churches. Means of developing servant leadership are Bible teaching, one-on-one relationships, vocational training, academic training, sports, and hands-on ministry.”

World Impact also uses the camp as part of its two-year-long Christian Leadership Program, in which, according to the group’s site, participants learn five “core values,” which include being a “Compelling Witness for God” and “Display[ing] Christ-like character.”

‘A Community Service’

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) included $750,000 in this year’s THUD bill for World Impact to help renovate a building formally run by the YWCA in North St. Louis. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) also included $150,000 in the CJS bill for the project.

According to aides to Bond and Clay, the North St. Louis project is aimed at renovating the YWCA building to be used as a new low-income and at-risk youth outreach and education center.

A spokeswoman for Bond said the lawmaker included the earmark to help World Impact provide a variety of services to the community, ranging from drug treatment to GED courses, and describes the area as “a very under-served part of St. Louis.” She also said that while religion may be a major component of World Impact’s overall mission, the money in the earmark will not go toward faith activities.

“The money Sen. Bond got isn’t going to printing tracts or something. It’s going towards renovating a building where these life skills programs will take place,” the spokeswoman said.

A Clay aide agreed, explaining that World Impact has worked in North St. Louis for more than 20 years with homeless and low-income communities and has provided drug treatment programs, food and clothing and vocal and life skills training for inner city youth.

“We’ve seen absolutely no difficulty or concern in our community regarding any kind of religious interference. It’s been a community service and a very successful one,” the Clay aide said.

But Americans United’s Sher argued that while these activities are positive developments, the new North St. Louis facility will be World Impact’s primary location in the city and that it will be impossible for them to separate religious and missionary activities from purely community services.

“The World Impact Ministry Center is its only St. Louis location. All World Impact’s ministries in St. Louis include a significant religious component — even its after-school club includes devotionals with dodgeball. I can’t figure out what secular activities take place here that would justify $900,000 in grants to rebuild its Ministry Center,” Sher argued.

Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, argued that on a broader level, lawmakers should be wary of earmarking money for religious groups, particularly in cases such as World Impact where lawmakers are securing funds for ministries in their home states or districts.

“You don’t want earmark cash ending up in the Sunday plate,” Ellis warned, noting that these earmarks are “follow[ing] your traditional earmark path … they still kind of take care of the folks back home. Its not like funding something in North Dakota when you’re from Missouri. Kit Bond is taking care of Missouri … [and Brownback] is still making sure he butters the bread back in Kansas.”