Oct 17, 2008

A devout Roman Catholic taking a helicopter to attend Sunday morning services at a Baptist church nearly 200 miles from his house followed by lunch with "local officials" at a shooting range—sounds like a politician on his campaign trail.

Except for the fact that campaign money isn't flying the helicopter. Rather, it's more than $180,000 in taxpayer money fueling in-state trips like these for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. That's the total cost of Jindal's travel itinerary in State Police helicopters from January 2007 until Sept. 1, 2008, according to a report in the Baton Rouge Advocate.

In his first eight months of office, Jindal used State Police helicopters a dozen times to worship in churches in northern Louisiana, the newspaper reports.

"Even before I was a candidate for office, I've enjoyed worshipping in other churches," Jindal said.

That's great, but should taxpayers pay outrageously for Jindal to do this? (It costs $1, 200 an hour to fly the helicopter.) And aren't there other churches he could attend in his own neighborhood, if he'd rather attend those services instead of his own faith's mass on a Sunday morning?

Jindal claims his trips to churches are not at all political, and it is not a stunt to get re-elected, though he has already begun raising money for his next campaign. He was known for his visits to churches during his last campaign for governor. But at that time, the trips were paid for by campaign funds, not the state of Louisiana.

It's no secret that Jindal has close ties with Religious Right fundamentalists and that they are a large part of his base in Louisiana. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that Jindal is "seen as practically one of the family" at the offices of the Louisiana Family Forum, a fundamentalist group finding new levels of power in the state, thanks to Jindal's sympathy for derailing church-state separation.

Since Jindal became governor, the state has passed a law that opens the door for creationism to be taught in public schools and stripped away anti-discrimination rules that barred publicly funded faith-based groups from discriminating in hiring against gays and others who don't meet their doctrinal tests.

When Jindal flew to Winnfield, La., to attend services at First Baptist Church on Sunday, March 30, he wasn't simply a quiet observer. He made a speech that began with a story from the campaign trail. He later went into talking about his faith.

Jindal also reportedly made it clear to the congregation that he did not want to publicize his trip to the church. To Rev. Jerold McBride, who was acting as the church's interim pastor at the time, the fact that Jindal didn't want to "run billboards" about his visit meant Jindal was keeping it "very nonpolitical."

But couldn't it also mean Jindal knows most people wouldn't agree that spending on campaign outreach to the Religious Right is the best use of taxpayer dollars? Especially in a state that has bigger issues to tackle and so many better uses for its buck.