New York Times leaves out details of findings on faith-based initiatives

Published: Wednesday July 19, 2006

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A Wednesday morning New York Times article failed to fully detail the outcome of an audit of the Bush administration's controversial effort to publicly fund faith-based initiatives, RAW STORY has found.

The story by Neela Banerjee, headlined "Report Faults Safeguards in Religion Program" concentrates on the lack of sufficient oversight by many federal agencies of the organizations to which they are providing grants that was a major conclusion of a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's highly respected non-partisan auditing arm. But in stating that the GAO "did not find evidence of a widespread diversion of government money to religious activity from social services," the Times may give the impression that the main problem is in oversight, and not within the faith-based programs themselves.

In addition to investigating the oversight procedures of the grant-giving federal agencies, the GAO "conducted semistructured interviews with 26 selected FBOs in these four states to determine their understanding of program regulations and the extent to which they have been monitored for compliance with the key safeguards related to the initiative. We selected FBOs that had received federal project and formula grants in 2003 or 2004 from the 10 programs included in our review. Finally, we interviewed independent auditors in three states who had completed single audits for a few of our selected FBOs." The GAO acknowledged that, "Because we used a nonprobability sample of FBOs, our findings are not generalizable to all FBOs receiving federal funds from the programs included in our review."

Rep. George Miller (D - CA), in a statement issued yesterday by his office, warned that because of the poor accountability "we don't know if Americans who are eligible for services are missing out on them because of their religious beliefs."

The GAO report agreed with the Times that "we did not find any indications that [faith-based organizations] did not serve a beneficiary based on a beneficiary�s religious beliefs." But, it detailed a number of actions by faith-based initiatives that ran afoul of mandates which seek to preserve the wall between church and state in the programs, particularly requirements that they "separate in time or location religious activities from program services funded with direct federal funds." The lack of strong efforts by federal agencies to monitor the safeguard appears to confound that problem in the GAO's analysis.

Specifically, GAO found that 4 faith-based organizations "described engaging in activities that appear not to be permissible with federal funds under the equal treatment rules. For example, officials from 2 of these FBOs told us that that they would pray with beneficiaries at the beneficiary�s request. While voluntary prayer is permissible as long as it is offered separately in time or location from program activities conducted with direct federal funds, these officials indicated that they conducted prayer at the same time and location as their federally funded services.40 In addition, an official from another FBO said that he began each program session, which provided services to children, with a nonsectarian prayer that at times included a brief reading from the Bible. Finally, one FBO program manager told us that she discussed religious issues during the same time and at the same location as federally funded services if requested by a participant and no other participants objected."

In its conclusion, the GAO reported, "We found instances where FBOs did not appear to understand the nuances associated with the equal treatment rule that prohibits FBOs from engaging in inherently religious activities while providing services supported with direct federal funds."