Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of Sen. Alexander - Reimbursing Churches for Charitable Work in the Wake of Katrina and Rita

Posted on September 29, 2005

Mr. President, earlier this week the Washington Post reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was making plans to "reimburse churches and other organizations that have opened their doors to provide shelter, food and supplies to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.'' I understand FEMA's good intentions here, but we need to be very careful. There may be extraordinary circumstances when FEMA may need to rent buildings that might happen to belong to a church or mosque or synagogue. And I understand that under both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, there have been appropriate ways to provide charitable choice and to fund faith-based organizations. I support that. I am currently working with senators on both sides of the aisle on our Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on legislation to help all of Katrina's 372,000 displaced school children, including some who are enrolled in private and even religious schools. But the kind of reimbursement described in the Washington Post article makes me want to wave three yellow flags and two red ones. One obvious concern is constitutional. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'' Paying churches for work they choose to undertake as churches raises obvious questions. That is not my major concern. My major concern is making sure that we honor what it has always meant in America to be a volunteer, to be charitable, and to respect our religious traditions. When Jesus fed the loaves and the fishes to the multitude of 5,000, he didn't send the bill to Caesar. As Americans with a strong religious tradition, we believe in helping our neighbors. In the book of Mark, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength'' and to “love their neighbor as thyself.” This idea of loving and caring for our neighbors is not limited to Christianity. Jesus himself drew the commands to love God and love our neighbor from the Old Testament in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. I don't ever remember reading: “Love God, love your neighbor, and send the bill to Washington for the expenses.” From pioneer days, volunteering and helping our neighbors has been an essential part of the American character. No other country in the world has anything similar to what we have in their traditions. They do not give as we give. They do not have that same spirit. It is one of the things that makes this a unique country. Our forefathers would be dumbfounded to think that if a neighbor's barn burned down and the community joined together to rebuild it, that they would expect a check from Washington, D.C. to pay them back. In that same Washington Post article, Reverend Robert E. Reccord of the Southern Baptist Convention helped put this in balance when he said, “Volunteer labor is just that: volunteer. We would never ask the government to pay for it.” At my church in Nashville, Westminster Presbyterian, where I am an elder, we took up a collection for the victims of Katrina and raised about $80,000 in cash. We then filled up the parlor in the church with other things that we were told they needed in southern Mississippi. We loaded up a truck with diapers and Clorox and other necessities, and our associate pastor went down there with that truck for a few weeks to help people in need. Are we now supposed to send the federal government a bill for the food and the supplies and three weeks of the pastor's salary? Of course not. No one in our church expects that, nor should they. So churches and synagogues and mosques and religious organizations that are being good neighbors aren't looking for a government handout. They are looking to lend a hand. We should respect them. We should thank them. We should honor them. They are performing an invaluable service. We encourage them by providing tax incentives for charitable giving. But we should also remember that virtue is often its own reward and that some rewards are in heaven, and we should be very careful before we start reimbursing churches for their charity.