Mixing religion and politics

Faith-based groups hire lobbyists to pursue millions in earmarks

May 13, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

Saint Vincent College, a small Benedictine college southeast of Pittsburgh, wanted to realign a two-lane state road serving the campus. But the state transportation department did not have the money.

So Saint Vincent tried Washington instead. The college hired a professional lobbyist in 2004, and, later that year, two paragraphs were tucked into federal appropriation bills with the help of Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, awarding $4 million solely for that project. College officials said the work would improve the safety and appearance of the road into the campus, which President Bush visited two days ago when he gave the college's commencement address.

Religious organizations have long competed for federal contracts to provide social services, and they have tried to influence Congress on matters of moral and social policy - indeed, most major denominations have a presence in Washington to monitor such legislation. But an analysis of federal records shows that some religious organizations are also hiring professional lobbyists to pursue the narrowly tailored individual appropriations known as earmarks.

A New York Times analysis shows that the number of earmarks for religious organizations, while small compared with the overall number, have increased sharply in recent years. From 1989 to January 2007, Congress approved almost 900 earmarks for religious groups, totaling more than $318 million. More than half of that amount was granted in the congressional session that included the 2004 presidential election. By contrast, the same analysis showed fewer than 60 earmarks for faith-based groups in the congressional session that covered 1997 and 1998, a nonelection year.

Earmarks are individual federal grants that bypass the normal appropriations and competitive-bidding procedures. They have been blamed for feeding the budget deficit and have figured in several Capitol Hill bribery scandals, prompting recent calls for reform from White House and congressional leaders.

They are distinct from the competitive, peer-reviewed grants that have traditionally been used by religious institutions and charities to obtain financing for social services.

According to an analysis by the Times, as the number of faith-based earmarks grew, so did the number of religious organizations listed as clients of Washington lobbying firms and the amount the organizations paid the firms for services. During the period studied, from 1998 to 2005, the number of religious organizations with representation tripled. The amount they paid for representation doubled.

Sometimes the earmarks benefited programs aimed at helping others. There have been numerous earmarks totaling $5.4 million for World Vision, the global humanitarian ministry, to conduct job training, youth mentoring and gang prevention programs.

But many of the earmarks address the prosaic institutional needs of some specific religious group.

Several scholars who wrote books about religious advocacy work in Washington in the 1980s and early 1990s say the push for earmarks identified in the Times' analysis represents a sharp departure from the lobbying strategies traditionally associated with religious groups. One of them, Allen D. Hertzke, a professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said, "I never heard religious lobbyists talk about earmarks." It is a shift that some religious advocates find worrisome.

James E. Winkler, who has represented the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society since 2000, says he fears that the pursuit of earmarks could muffle religion's moral voice. "For example, we've opposed the war since Day One," he said. "But what if an earmark benefiting us - money for a Methodist seminary, perhaps - is attached to the supplemental appropriation for the war? You can see how very serious moral conflicts could arise."

The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, said while religious organizations should be able to compete for federal money, such groups "shouldn't do that through earmarks." He explained, "As good stewards of the public trust, we have to be transparent and above board - and earmarks are not transparent or above board."

And, constitutional lawyers point out, because the First Amendment prohibits direct government financing of religious activities, earmarks that steer money to religious groups pose constitutional risks. Indeed, several faith-based earmarks were successfully challenged as unconstitutional long after Congress approved them.

Paul Marcone, a lobbyist and former Capitol Hill staff member who specializes in getting earmarks for nonprofit clients, disputes the notion that religious groups should not pursue them.

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