Thursday, March 09, 2006

Bush Orders DHS to Create Center for Faith-Based Aid
Bush Orders DHS to Create Center for Faith-Based Aid
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer

President Bush ordered the Department of Homeland Security yesterday to create a center for faith-based and community initiatives within 45 days to eliminate regulatory, contracting and programmatic barriers to providing federal funds to religious groups to deliver social services, the White House announced last night.

Pressed both by churches that have not received privately raised Hurricane Katrina relief funds as promised and by the outpouring of help of religious groups to Gulf Coast storm victims, Bush also called on the department by September "to identify all existing barriers . . . that unlawfully discriminate against, or otherwise discourage or disadvantage the participation" of such groups in federal programs.

In signing an executive order, Bush asked the department to develop pilot programs, conduct outreach and provide technical assistance to the groups in concert with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The departments of Justice, Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services have similar centers.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the move complements a recent White House "lessons learned" report about integrating such groups in disaster response and "also notes the extraordinary support by the faith-based community" after Katrina.

Federal funding is controversial among such groups. Some organizations, such as Catholic Charities, accept such funds, while others, such as the Rev. Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing, have said in the past that they would not accept it.

Along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Mississippi, religious groups have provided extraordinary help, local officials say, but also contributed to waste and duplication of effort when they failed to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local and county governments.

Congress has appropriated $67.9 billion for emergency supplemental hurricane relief, among other assistance, a portion of which is reserved for FEMA. Generally, the agency is restricted by law from engaging with religious organizations for disaster operations.

FEMA has announced, however, that it will reimburse religious organizations for feeding and sheltering storm victims. It has also contracted with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, an arm of the United Methodist Church, for $60 million to provide case management for the neediest storm victims.

Last week, a coalition of clergy members enlisted to help distribute $20 million raised by the relief fund set up by Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, and former president Bill Clinton, complained that churches had seen none of the money yet.

Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon in Washington and Michael A. Fletcher in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.