ADL, Reform blast proposed USAID bid to fund houses of worship


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement have raised objections to plans by the U.S Agency for International Development to directly fund the building of houses of worship.

Commenting on the overseas aid agency’s proposal, the groups said that such assistance would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the agency’s own rules.

"The new, untried, expansive standard is subject to abuse and raises real concerns about the potential for discrimination and preferential treatment among religions," the ADL said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, joined other supporters of church-state separation in signing on to a letter prepared by Melissa Rogers, the director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University, a divinity school. The letter said the new policy would violate the Establishment Clause.

The new policy would allow "acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation of structures that are used, in whole or in part, for inherently religious activities," although it qualifies that the aid must have "a secular purpose, is made generally available to a wide range of organizations and beneficiaries which are defined without reference to religion, has the effect of furthering a development objective, the criteria upon which structures are selected for acquisition, construction, or rehabilitation are religiously neutral, and the selection criteria are amenable to neutral application."

In a statement to JTA, Drew Bailey, the USAID press officer, rejected the critics’ arguments, saying the agency’s rule banning funding as it stands "unduly restricts and interferes with our ability to effectively implement U.S. foreign assistance programs overseas."

Bailey said the agency is particularly concerned that "the current rule improperly restricts USAID relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction responses to disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies overseas; development assistance activities in the education sector overseas; and cultural and historical preservation efforts overseas."

The letter prepared by Rogers offered a different take.

"The proposed rule reflects the belief that government policies only need to have a secular purpose and neutral criteria to pass constitutional muster. That is wrong," it said. "A program may be a model of neutrality yet still invite constitutional violations if it permits direct government aid to be used for religious activities. "

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