Oct 02, 2002

Giving TV preacher Pat Robertson and other religious leaders control over the distribution of public funds through the Bush "faith-based" initiative violates the Constitution, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced today that Robertson's Operation Blessing and 20 other charities -- many of them religious -- will be given demonstration grants through the so-called Compassion Capital Fund. Robertson's organization and the other "intermediaries" will in turn distribute the public money to religious and community groups of their choice to provide social services.

"Giving religious groups control over public funds is a blatant violation of the Constitution," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Under the First Amendment, religious ministries shouldn't become an arm of the government."

Lynn said the grant to Robertson illustrates one of the problems with the faith-based initiative.

"Robertson is one of the chief purveyors of religious bigotry in America," said AU's Lynn. "To reward his outfit with government funding is an insult to every American taxpayer.

"Robertson was one of the earliest critics of the 'faith-based' scheme," Lynn continued, "but I guess 30 pieces of silver was enough to change his mind."

Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and head of the Christian Broadcasting Network, was a harsh critic of the Bush "faith-based" initiative when it was first announced in January 2001, but in recent months his criticism of the plan has all but disappeared.

The transformation has been dramatic. On Feb. 20, 2001, the Virginia Beach-based preacher told his "700 Club" television audience that the Bush plan "could be a real Pandora's box."

Robertson also charged that religious minorities such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, the Church of Scientology and the Hare Krishnas might get public funding through the initiative.

Two weeks later, Robertson told his viewers that religious groups would become addicted to government funding.

"They'll begin to be nurtured, if I can use that term, on federal money, and then they can't get off of it," he said. "It'll be like a narcotic; they can't then free themselves later on."

Robertson's new role as a partner with the Bush administration is startling, given his vitriolic attacks on political opponents and religious minorities. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Robertson and fellow TV preacher Jerry Falwell blamed America's sins for the incident while appearing on Robertson's Sept. 13 "700 Club." During the episode, Robertson blamed court rulings upholding church-state separation for the attacks.

"We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government," Robertson said. "And then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening, is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."

Robertson has launched repeated attacks on Islam. In a Sept. 18, 2002 appearance on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes," he said the Prophet Muhammad was "a killer" and added "to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent." In 1991, he said Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians reflect "the spirit of the Antichrist."

Robertson's Operation Blessing, a $66-million-a-year agency, also has a controversial history. According to news media reports, investigators with Virginia's Office of Consumer Affairs wanted to prosecute Robertson in 1999 for making deceptive appeals about his charity but were overruled by the attorney general's office. Lawyers in the attorney general's office agreed Robertson had made inaccurate statements but decided against prosecution.

The controversy over Operation Blessing stretches back to 1994 when Robertson used his "700 Club" daily cable television program to raise funds for the charity. Robertson told viewers Operation Blessing was using cargo planes to aid refugees from Rwanda who had fled into the neighboring nation of Zaire (now known as Congo) to escape a violent civil war.

In fact, Robertson was using the planes to haul mining equipment in and out of Zaire for African Development Corporation (ADC), his for-profit diamond-mining company. Robertson later said the planes had proved impractical for relief work and insisted he had reimbursed the charity for ADC's use of them.

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper noted that state officials criticized the charity for sloppy bookkeeping and for mixing non-profit and for-profit activities. It also pointed out that Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing for ADC's use of its airplanes in two stages. Investigators determined that ADC owed Operation Blessing $468,773. Robertson ultimately gave the group $572,597, but $400,000 of that came two months after the official investigation began.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.