Model For Disaster

Faith-Based Fiascoes Undercut Prospects For Bush Administration Initiative

 

In George W. Bush's first address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 27, the president singled out Philadelphia Mayor John Street for effusive praise because of the mayor's role in implementing a citywide "faith-based" program.

"Mayor Street has encouraged faith-based and community organizations to make a significant difference in Philadelphia," Bush said. "He's invited me to his city this summer to see compassionate action. I'm personally aware of just how effective the mayor is."

Then, looking to Street seated in a prestigious balcony seat alongside First Lady Laura Bush, the president added, "I look forward to coming to your city, to see your faith-based programs in action."

Bush may want to adjust his travel plans, because if he's looking for an exemplary program "in action," he'll have to look elsewhere.

The faith-based program in Philadelphia, held out as a model by Bush, was rocked by controversy March 11 when it was discovered that the pastor leading the program has been charged with theft by a grand jury.

The Rev. Randall E. McCaskill is accused of pocketing thousands of dollars in campaign contributions while serving as president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity from 1997 to 1999. According to a grand jury report, McCaskill solicited contributions from judicial candidates to pay for sample ballots and campaign staff. Instead, the report alleges the contributions paid for his personal gas and water bills, his wife's dental bill and leases on his three cars including a Lexus.

With no fanfare or media attention, McCaskill was relieved of his duties running the faith-based effort in Philadelphia last May, stemming not from suspected criminal activity, but from a complete inability to manage the office. Hired by Street because of his political connections, McCaskill became a running joke among the community's religious leaders, who said they never saw him and couldn't get their calls returned. Nevertheless, McCaskill retained his official title for 10 months and continued receiving his $96,000-a-year salary right up until felony charges were brought against him.

Supporters of the Bush administration's faith-based plan contend that church-state partnerships nearly always work and therefore deserve the support of taxpayers with little, if any, government regulation and oversight. But the fiasco at Philadelphia's faith-based program is not an isolated incident. With increasing frequency, reports from across the country, and indeed around the world, demonstrate that when religion and government merge, problems often ensue.

Real life accounts demonstrate that church-state partnerships can fall short of expectations and even lead to tragedies. Let's look at some examples.

Inviting Corruption

When religion and politics are injudiciously mixed, corruption is a possible by-product. Wilmington, Del., is suffering through just such a controversy.

In 1995, Wilmington Mayor James H. Sills Jr. began a grant program taking advantage of a "suburban street fund" created by the Delaware legislature nearly 20 years earlier. The system was supposed to make funding for roadwork projects easier to complete. Instead, law enforcement authorities believe legislators and local officials used hundreds of thousands of tax dollars from the street fund to offer grants to their own congregations and churches that offered political campaign assistance. An extensive criminal investigation has resulted.

Through the "street fund," individual legislators were given $300,000 allotments intended for street, sidewalk and greenway projects. In too many instances, lawmakers in Wilmington allegedly ignored the appropriate target and distributed funds to specific houses of worship. The problem transcended constitutional church-state questions and turned into concerns over bribery and corruption.

Rep. Al O. Plant (D-Wilmington Central), for example, directed almost $200,000 to churches. The Rev. Lewis Johnson, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Plant's district, told the Wilmington News Journal that tax dollars were helping to pay for the congregation's microphones and public address system.

Making matters worse, some churches that hosted political rallies for Mayor Sills received grant money, leading to suspicions about quid pro quo relationships between officials and pastors. Ebenezer Baptist hosted a rally for the Ministers for Sills group after receiving its grant. Similarly, Full Tabernacle Gospel Baptist Church in West Center City hosted a Sills event after Plant gave $15,000 to the church, despite the fact that the church wasn't even in Plant's district.

According to an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity, one unnamed state representative asked for a $25,000 grant to pay the salary of a local TV preacher who encouraged his supporters to vote for specific candidates.

In total, six Wilmington legislators have awarded $419,000 in public money to eight churches and one ministers' group since 1998. Clergy and officials deny any illegal activity. But currently, as many as 10 Delaware officials are being investigated by the state auditor's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Interfaith Tensions

Faith-based efforts sometimes fall apart because of conflict between ministries and pastors.

Residents of Niagara Falls, N.Y., had high expectations after a "faith-based" partnership was announced there in 1999. Over the last decade, the city has seen neighborhoods that once bustled with industry and commercial activity fade into urban blight. The once popular Highland Avenue neighborhood, in the heart of what was an active part of the downtown area, has seen its supermarket, barbershop and drugstore all permanently close their doors.

In an aggressive effort to breathe new life into the community, local government officials teamed with religious leaders to form the Niagara Falls Faith-Based Collaborative in the summer of 1999. The initiative promised exciting results by uniting the efforts of several local churches with the support and cooperation of government agencies.

Municipal officials were elated when the city won a $420,000 federal grant to revitalize part of the downtown area. The Faith-Based Collaborative secured the money through a project sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help religious and community groups improve impoverished neighborhoods.

So far, however, nothing has been done to boost the fortunes of the city's gritty North End. Nearly as soon as the plans were finalized, internal disputes, power struggles and disagreements erupted between churches, local politicians and community groups. Arguments between the pastor of the Victory Family Christian Center and leaders of the Niagara Ministerial Council and Mount Sinai Baptist Church called into question simple matters such as who chaired the collaborative. Meetings were scheduled, committees were formed and lawsuits were eventually filed, but work never began.

Nearly two years later, the federal funds have been frozen and only $24,000 for administrative costs has actually been spent. Highland Avenue has no new businesses and local residents are beginning to wonder if things will get better.

"I was hoping they could get something going and create more jobs for the people here," Luther Daniels, a longtime resident of the area, told the Buffalo News. "If they're ever going to do anything for Highland Avenue, now is the time. Who knows what it's going to be in 10 or 12 years?"

The Niagara Falls example demonstrates a point Americans United has been arguing for some time.

"When a plan invites competition for control between religious groups, it's a recipe for disaster," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Churches and other houses of worship should never be pitted against one another in a bid for influence over government funding."

Tax-Funded Proselytism

Questions have also been raised about Bush's faith-based plan leading to government-funded evangelism. Families in need may be pressured into religious activities simply to receive assistance they are entitled to.

These concerns were bolstered by recent reports from Guadalupe, El Salvador. When two powerful earthquakes devastated the small Central American nation on Jan. 13 and Feb. 13, hundreds were killed and many more remained homeless.

In response, dozens of relief agencies flew in. Among them was Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian group founded by Franklin Graham, son of famous evangelist Billy Graham. Armed with a $200,000 federal grant from the Agency for International Development (AID), Samaritan's Purse was charged with the task of helping residents of several rural villages build temporary plastic and metal homes from kits provided by the U.S. government.

But, as The New York Times reported March 5, Samaritan's Purse spent nearly as much time foisting faith as it did hoisting houses. According to the Times report, members of the relief group distributed fundamentalist tracts, encouraged villagers to accept Jesus as their personal savior and held 30-minute prayer meetings before showing residents how to construct the temporary houses.

AID guidelines state that relief agencies are not permitted to "promote religion at the public expense by using U.S. government funds or U.S. government-financed goods or services to promote sectarian purposes." But Samaritan's Purse argues it cannot sever its religious mission from relief work.

"We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization," Dr. Paul Chiles, Samaritan's Purse's director in El Salvador, told the Times. "We can't really separate the two. We really believe Jesus Christ told us to do relief work."

Relief workers with other groups called the missionary activity inappropriate.

"They are hitting these people when they're most vulnerable," said one anonymous volunteer. "It may not be pressure, but it sure is taking advantage of a period in people's life when they will do anything like that to get a house."

AID, which conducted a brief investigation after the Times story was published, decided not to pursue punitive action against Graham's group, instead concluding that Samaritan's Purse needed to change its tactics to ensure a separation between the proselytizing and the care for the needy.

Meanwhile, the group can rely on powerful friends in Congress. Samaritan's Purse got the $200,000 in federal money thanks largely to the efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Shortly after Graham's efforts began in El Salvador, Helms arranged for the evangelist's group to get another $200,000 grant of tax dollars. In the wake of the controversy, Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Helms, said Samaritan's Purse "did nothing wrong," and argued the flare-up occurred as part of "an effort by opponents of faith-based institutions to tar President Bush's vision of compassionate conservatism."

Helms recently proposed that AID distribute all of its relief money through religious groups and charities. If the Bush administration adopts Helms' approach, Samaritan's Purse and organizations like it could receive a windfall of tax aid, and every time disaster strikes, needy people around the world may find themselves receiving a big dose of religious dogma alongside food, blankets and bottled water.

Abandoning Accountability

Closer to home, Bush intends to apply his faith-based approach to American education as well. The president has mandated that the U.S. Department of Education, along with four other cabinet-level federal agencies, establish internal faith-based offices and strive to create additional church-state partnerships. Questions about accountability, however, afflict this facet of the plan as much as the other areas of social service.

Although Bush would probably prefer to forget about the fiasco surrounding the Prepared Table Charter School in Houston, the example serves as an important reminder of what can happen when the president's faith-based approach goes to school.

Prepared Table is run by the Greater Progressive Tabernacle Baptist Church and began operating out of an old public elementary school during Bush's tenure as governor. Under Bush's charter school program, schools can operate with minimal regulation from education agencies. Minimal regulation, of course, also means little oversight

After two years of operation, the Prepared Table Charter School has been awarded nearly $20 million in state and federal funding, far more than any other charter school in Bush's home state, according to a report by the Kingwood Observer.

Officials at the Texas Education Agency, however, say an audit of the school "indicated serious deficits for the current budget year." They also charged that members of the school's four-member board and its superintendent, the Rev. Harold Wilcox, were "not forthcoming" in providing financial information.

The inflated spending did not, apparently, help provide high quality services for Prepared Table's students. One recent report noted the school's facilities were poor, and that children were sometimes asked to lie on the floor because there were no desks.

Instead of shutting the school down or revoking its charter, education officials in Texas have appointed a special "master" to oversee school operations.

Deregulation Risks

The problem of accountability and regulation can be a double-edged sword for the president. On the one hand, if Bush regulates religious groups to ensure tax dollars are spent properly, he risks entangling church and state and destroying the independent character of the private institutions. On the other hand, if Bush takes a hands-off approach, tax dollars can be misspent while fraud and abuse runs rampant.

While working, often unsuccessfully, to find the right balance as governor of Texas, Bush had more faith-based difficulties than just charter schools. He also worked to expand faith-based services as part of welfare reform.

In 1997, Bush pushed for laws to allow religious groups to participate in drug treatment programs. To ease the burdens of regulations, Bush exempted faith-based programs from state health and safety regulations that government facilities had to follow, and even allowed the groups to bypass criminal background checks and minimum training requirements for employees. Moreover, Bush dropped a requirement that the facilities be accredited by the state.

In the 1970s, Lester Roloff founded Roloff Homes to operate treatment centers for troubled youths from a Christian worldview. After several years of operation, Roloff became the center of complaints by teenage girls who offered chilling tales of being whipped and starved by Roloff staffers. When the state attorney's office was refused access to the facility for an investigation, a legal fight ensued, leading Roloff Homes to move out of Texas.

Bush's faith-based plan brought the Roloff agency back to the Lone Star State, where thanks to Bush's "reforms," it could be accredited by the Texas Association for Christian Child Care Agencies instead of the government.

Less than three years after starting anew in Texas, two employees of the Roloff Homes were arrested, accused of abusing children in the care of the facility. According to a report published in The Washington Post, a teenager at the facility told authorities that he was tied to another boy and made to run through the woods barefoot and dig in a sewage pit for almost 12 hours while other boys were encouraged to throw things at them. The boy ended up in the hospital. (His story was corroborated by several other boys at the facility who also spoke of "sadistic" punishments.)

The mother of the boy told the Post she sent her son to a Roloff facility with the expectation that he would "find himself and find God." After hearing what had happened at the Christian facility, she said, "I felt sick."

Church-State Tragedy

While deplorable, the Roloff example is not the only instance of a church-state partnership leading to the abuse of children in the care of a religious facility.

In Canada, for the better part of the 20th century, the government partnered with churches to educate the nation's Indian children. The result was an unmitigated disaster that has led to thousands of lawsuits and near bankruptcy for the nation's three largest Christian denominations.

Around the turn of the century, Canada's Catholic, United and Anglican churches agreed to run a network of about 100 boarding schools for Indian children. As part of the program, children as young as 5 were abducted from their families and sent to educational facilities where youngsters were forbidden to speak their native language or practice their religion.

Care at the schools frequently led to horrendous treatment for the children.

"How do you get 6-year-olds who only speak Sioux, who only speak Lakota, who only speak Cree to speak English?" Anthony Merchant, who represents about 4,000 Indian claimants, asked the International Herald Tribune. "You use Gestapo-type tactics to punish this 6-year-old. Punishment becomes increasingly barbaric, sadistic."

The system was phased out by 1970, but after the closures, Indians throughout the country began sharing the details of the appalling conditions they were forced to endure. In 1998, the Canadian government issued a formal apology to the families and victims of abuse at the hands of religious leaders and created a $350 million "healing fund."

The fund, however, did not cover the punitive damages sought by the Indians who had been abused. Estimates predict that 16,000 Indians will file claims against the churches by the end of this year. About one-third of the suits allege sexual abuse.

Canada's Catholic, United and Anglican denominations now face serious financial difficulties stemming from these lawsuits, and some church leaders are suggesting that their institutions could go bankrupt. Outstanding claims could lead to payments totaling anywhere from $1 billion to $10 billion, though some Canadian officials are considering a plan to help bail out the churches by using tax dollars to cover part of their debts.

Lessons Learned

As proponents of Bush's plan have rightly noted, secular government programs also get caught up in controversy, and there are many instances of fraud and abuse that have hurt the credibility of some public institutions. The important difference between the incidents at religious service providers and government agencies is that public facilities are easily and routinely audited and open to official inspections. While public accountability is a basic feature of government programs, publicly funded private institutions are kept separate and less accessible.

In other words, when an incident occurs at a secular public facility, a legal recourse is readily available. When a ministry runs a service program with tax dollars, determining what happened and holding the parties responsible lead to a morass of church-state entanglement.

No one has suggested that private religious service providers are consistently worse or more prone to abuse than secular providers. Rather, these incidents are receiving attention to highlight the fact that the Bush administration's claims about the inherent quality of faith-based care may not be as unambiguous as the president would have us believe.

"Those of us who oppose the Bush initiative aren't just talking about things that could happen, we're talking about things that have happened," said AU's Lynn. "When proponents of faith-based measures insist their way is the best way, we need to remember that these programs have already been tried, and in many instances, they have failed miserably."