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"After weeks of prodding by Republican lawmakers and the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that it will use taxpayer money to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that have opened their doors to provide shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
FEMA officials said it would mark the first time that the government has made large-scale payments to religious groups for helping to cope with a domestic natural disaster.
"I believe it's appropriate for the federal government to assist the faith community because of the scale and scope of the effort and how long it's lasting," said Joe Becker, senior vice president for preparedness and response with the Red Cross.
Civil liberties groups called the decision a violation of the traditional boundary between church and state, accusing FEMA of trying to restore its battered reputation by playing to religious conservatives...."
This is one of those situations where you can't please everyone. It is instructive to note that the American Red Cross has been pushing for this. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have extended the Red Cross to the point where they have been asking the churches to house people rendered homeless on a much longer term than is usual:
"...Becker [senior vice president for preparedness and response, ARC] said he and his staff at the Red Cross also urged FEMA to allow reimbursement of religious groups. Ordinarily, Becker said, churches provide shelter for the first days after a disaster, then the Red Cross takes over. But in a storm season that has stretched every Red Cross shelter to the breaking point, church buildings must for the first time house evacuees indefinitely...."
The guidelines issued by FEMA limit such reimbursements to cases where the Red Cross has asked churches to provide housing where the Red Cross is stretched beyond its capability to provide shelter.
Even so, not all eligible churches intend to apply for reimbursement:
"Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer," said the Rev. Robert E. Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. "We would never ask the government to pay for it."
However individual congregations have compelling reasons to view the FEMA move as being attractive:
"...For some individual churches, however, reimbursement is very appealing. At Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., as many as 200 evacuees and volunteer workers have been sleeping each night in the sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms. The church's entrance hall is a Red Cross reception area and medical clinic. As many as 400 people a day are eating in the fellowship hall.This seems reasonable. Many churches participate in some sort of social service, and some even provide overnight shelter to those who need it, but this is normal and expected. Long-term housing has stretched not only the Red Cross, but churches the Red Cross has asked to assist, and I doubt the "Wall of Separation" between Church and State will crumble if some congregations who have sacrificed so much to feed, house, and clothe the homeless in this extraordinary time are given some financial support.
Suzie Harvey, the parish administrator, said the church was asked by the Red Cross and local officials to serve as a shelter. The church's leadership agreed immediately, without anticipating that nearly a quarter of its 650 members would be rendered homeless and in no position to contribute funds. "This was just something we had to do," she said. "Later we realized we have no income coming in."
Harvey said the electric bill has skyrocketed, water is being used round-the-clock and there has been "20 years of wear on the carpet in one month." When FEMA makes money available, she said, the church definitely will apply...."