- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

A day before returning to the ravaged Gulf Coast region, President Bush created an office for faith-based initiatives within the Department of Homeland Security to improve disaster recovery efforts.

But the new office also will have some old business — reimbursing groups that spent millions on recovery efforts.

While the new Homeland Security office will give private religious organizations the opportunity to compete for federal dollars and contracts, proponents also say they hope it will streamline efforts to pay back private organizations that already have assisted in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

“Part of this new office will be to undertake the necessary steps to address any outstanding issues relating to the reimbursement of past hurricane relief efforts,” Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. “These groups were essential and will continue to play a substantial role in the hurricane relief effort.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday said the Bush directive calls for the department to establish a center for faith-based and community initiatives to advance the administration’s “overall mission and strengthen the department’s preparedness efforts.”

Mr. Chertoff said the center will conduct departmentwide audits to identify barriers to faith-based and other community organizations’ participation in programs and activities and will propose ways to remove those barriers and better integrate community efforts.

He said faith-based and community groups “played an instrumental role in response to Hurricane Katrina, and they continue to be an essential partner in helping victims in the Gulf-states region rebuild their lives and communities.”

Meanwhile, several groups reportedly have experienced bureaucratic roadblocks in their efforts to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Although Homeland Security could not offer specific numbers, some groups such as the American Red Cross are waiting on a reported $265 million in housing reimbursement fees.

“A faith-based office will make progress in eliminating the red-tape barriers which have plagued FEMA’s efforts to coordinate with faith-based groups,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

Similar faith-based offices currently reside within the Justice, Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disagrees with the move.

“Of all the bad places for a faith-based office, this is the most strange,” Mr. Lynn said. “These groups will be able to turn away volunteers if they find their religious views unacceptable. And [disaster victims] will be reluctant to seek aid because frequently this kind of assistance comes with evangelism.”

“Forget the state concerns — we think this is bad for churches,” said Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute. “Most churches are small and not ready to handle 500 pages of government red tape.”

In creating the office Tuesday, Mr. Bush gave the Homeland Security Department 45 days to get the office up and running and instructed Mr. Chertoff to appoint its director.

Also included in Mr. Bush’s five-point guideline of responsibilities for the new director are orders to “coordinate a comprehensive departmental effort to incorporate faith-based and other community organizations in department programs and initiatives to the greatest extent possible.”

Some of the private organizations working on federal disaster relief include AmeriCorps, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Common Ground, Samaritan’s Purse, Southern Baptists, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Organizations and Habitat for Humanity.

“All meet regularly, often twice weekly, with state, local and FEMA counterparts as part of the officially organized Unmet Needs Committee,” Mr. Knocke said.

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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