Obama’s stimulus pours millions into faith-based groups – POLITICO.com
The stimulus bought Castleton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis a new heating and cooling system. In Laramie, Wyo., it bought the Church of St. Laurence O’Toole new windows for the Roman Catholic school it runs. And in Harrisburg, Pa., Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area spent its $120,000 in stimulus funding on food and shelter for local homeless people.
“It kind of fell from the sky, and it was unbelievable that we had this much extra money,” said Jackie Rucker, executive director of the church-sponsored nonprofit in Pennsylvania’s capital.
For many conservatives, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as the stimulus is formally known, has been Exhibit A in their case against the Obama administration, a symbol for an era they feel will be defined by out-of-control government spending. (See: Biden: ‘Recovery Act is working’)
But the stimulus is also the largest-scale embodiment of what was, not long ago, a conservative priority: directing tax dollars to “faith-based initiatives,” as President George W. Bush called them. (See: Obama to rename Bush’s faith office)
The story of the Obama administration’s large-scale spending on faith-based groups has been largely untold, perhaps because it cuts so sharply across the moment’s intensely partisan narrative. And in fact, when the stimulus was being debated in February 2009, conservatives attacked the bill as “anti-religious” in its spending guidelines. (See: Mixed W.H. signals on stimulus)
But an analysis by POLITICO found that at least $140 million in stimulus money has gone to faith-based groups, the result of an unpublicized White House decision to spend government money, where legal, supporting religiously inspired nonprofit groups. And that decision was just the beginning.
In an aggressive attempt at outreach, federal agencies, in conference calls and online seminars, instructed faith-based groups on how to apply for the grants, and federal officials sometimes stepped in when the state officials who distribute the money were reluctant to spend it on groups associated with churches and other religious establishments.
“Part of our job is to ensure that there’s a level playing field — we don’t encourage anyone to favor faith-based groups over other organizations, but we do want to ensure that there’s no discrimination against faith-based organizations,” said Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which Bush created and President Barack Obama renamed and expanded. (See: The Obama generation)
“Federal agencies did make a point to remind people that faith-based and community organizations were eligible for some of this funding,” he said.
The early criticism of the stimulus on religious grounds focused on boilerplate language that limited how religious universities and institutions could use some funds administered by the Department of Education. “You would think the ACLU drafted this bill,” wrote Mike Huckabee in an e-mail to supporters in 2009, while Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called it “a direct attack on students of faith.”
But the language that drew complaints applied only to a small fraction of stimulus spending. Meanwhile, some elements of the program — notably, Energy Department grants that can be used to refurbish religious sanctuaries — have drawn criticism from groups concerned that it encourages spending that crosses the line between the religious and the secular.
“We believe that the heating and cooling of religious institutions is a job for the congregation, not the American taxpayer,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told POLITICO.
And the drumbeat on the right has fallen silent. DeMint didn’t respond to questions from POLITICO on the subject, while a spokesman for Huckabee, Hogan Gidley, said the former governor hadn’t examined the expenditures in detail, “but if it turns out not to have discriminated against religious groups, then we welcome the news.”
Some conservative critics remain. Jim Towey, one of the heads of the faith-based office in the Bush years, told POLITICO he believed the programs would very likely favor groups that backed Obama’s policies and said that with large federal programs like Head Start, even Bush had been able to direct only “a nickel on the dollar” to faith-based groups.
Other observers, though, see more continuity with Bush’s program. Obama’s approach to spending government money on faith-based initiatives has been “almost entirely identical” to the Bush policy, said Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at The George Washington University.
Religious groups that have received federal funds — some of which have clashed with the administration on other policy fronts — say the stimulus package embodies the White House’s understanding of their role in the social safety net.
Obama “took what President Bush did and has expanded it,” said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, whose agencies received about $50 million from the stimulus, he said.
Some of the funding to Catholic Charities came as the White House bitterly battled the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on health care reform, which the bishops said would lead to government-funded abortion and fiercely opposed, and the charity group sought to hold a middle ground between backing the bill and opposing the abortion-related measures.
Snyder, who sits on the White House’s Faith Advisory Council, said that debate never spilled over.
“While it’s true that the leadership of the Catholic Church has had disagreements with the administration, especially on life issues and on the details of health care reform, those issues really were kept separate from our ability to work with the administration on basic human services,” he said.
POLITICO searched the federal database at Recovery.gov for grants to faith-based groups and found a wide range of grants going to an array of denominations. Catholic groups, receiving about $90 million, were the largest; Protestant groups received at least $45 million; and Jewish groups received at least $6 million.
Groups associated with other faiths got substantially less. One Muslim charity in Chicago, the Inner City Muslim Action Network, received $277,000 for a green jobs program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Much of the money went to fund the secular activities of religious institutions like schools and charitable organizations. Department of Education and Department of Agriculture grants went mostly to schools — Head Start programs, school lunch programs and other education-related programs.
Charities and social services organizations received funding through the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Justice. And the Department of Energy administered a number of energy-efficiency programs that some religious institutions qualified for.
POLITICO’s count excluded hospitals and universities with religious links, which received substantially more.
The federal government worked quietly to encourage faith-based groups to apply for grants. A November e-mail obtained by POLITICO from the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, encourages churches and other faith-based institutions to apply for Department of Energy funding.
“In past months, there has been some uncertainty and erroneous information regarding this issue,” Jerry Lawson, national manager for the EPA’s Energy Star Small Business & Congregations Network, wrote to a group that included officials for religious groups, passing on an agency memo stressing that “the Recovery Act has no prohibitions on the use of Recovery Act funds … to benefit churches/faith-based institutions.”
Because much of the federal stimulus flowed from agencies to the states, the extent of faith-based funding also varied widely by region. Many of the Department of Energy grants that went to religious institutions were in New York, Wyoming and Indiana. And many of the big-city Catholic archdioceses — like New York, Chicago and Denver — got a great deal of funding.
In one energy-efficiency program administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, at least $1 million in stimulus money was handed out to religious schools, charities and institutions across the state.
NYSERDA spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said the funds were allocated through a competitive grant-based process open to organizations including 501(c)(3)s — a category that includes most churches and religious institutions.
“The fact that they use energy to operate a building is what qualifies them. The reason that we give them money is that they operate a building, and these programs are designed to help them become more energy efficient,” he said.
The funding, organizations said, filled small gaps and got long-awaited projects off the ground. Federal records show the funding going for everything from equipment for preparing school lunches at Brooklyn yeshivas to preventing domestic violence and crisis intervention through national Catholic organizations.
In Laramie, the new windows at the Church of St. Laurence O’Toole’s school had been on the to-do list for years. “We’re feeling kind of good about it,” said Tom Wilhelm, the school’s principal.
In Indianapolis, “we replaced old equipment with new, with half the money coming from this grant,” said Scott Mork, director of operations for Castleton United Methodist Church.
The new windows and stoves for schools, the stocked food pantries and the revitalized homeless shelters amount to an unusually large new wave of federal funding for religious institutions and to a kind of partisan consensus on what had long been a divisive issue — one for which Obama’s religious allies say he doesn’t get enough political credit.
“It is something the Obama administration should get credit for and more people should know about — even if there are some folks on the left who this would disturb,” said Nathan Diament, director of public affairs at the right-leaning Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, who also sits on the Faith Advisory Council.
He added that he believed the new White House chief of staff, Pete Rouse, “is looking for new opportunities to highlight policies of the administration that do shatter some of the narratives.”
The White House’s DuBois said the administration is aware of the allegations of politicization that dogged Bush’s religious outreach.
“There was an implication in the past that only certain and selected groups were engaged, and that may be because it was seen as a part of a political strategy,” he said. “We’ve been explicit that our work to engage faith-based and community-based nonprofits, while it’s extraordinarily robust, it’s not part of a political strategy.”