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Faith-based food pantry, government compromise on timing of prayercomment (0)

June 7, 2012


Faith-based food pantry, government compromise on timing of prayer

Food pantry volunteer Shirley Sears patiently walked a young woman through a series of questions on an application for emergency assistance. After they completed the form, Sears told the woman she had one more question.

“Is there anything,” Sears asked, “that you would like us to pray with you about?”

Yes, the woman replied without hesitation. Reaching across the small desk that separated them, Sears grasped the woman’s hands and began to pray.

That scene has been repeated thousands of times over the past 15 years inside this small southern Indiana food pantry operated by nonprofit Community Provisions of Jackson County.

But recently the practice was found to be against federal policy, leaving the pantry’s founder with a Solomon-like choice: Stop the prayers or give up truckloads of free food provided through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Paul Brock, who started the faith-based pantry in 1997, refused to order his volunteers to quit asking recipients whether they wanted to pray. The federal food was suspended while the sides discussed a compromise.

“These kind of cases are popping up in a lot of places around the country,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “People can be overly sensitive on both sides.”

Cromartie said it is not a matter of stifling religious speech, but rather following the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state rules that come with receiving and administering government assistance.

“If this food or money was coming from a Christian charity, there would be no problem with praying,” he explained, “but the (government) money comes with attachments, and you have to follow the rules if you are going to take the money.”

The food pantry issue arose after an inspection last winter by Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, which runs the program for the Indiana Department of Health and ensures compliance with federal guidelines. Inspectors noted that pantry staff members asked recipients whether they wanted to pray. They reported that to state officials, who determined the practice was a violation of the federal rule.

“The guidelines are no religious (activity) or teaching can be required for providing services,” Gleaners spokeswoman Carrie Fulbright said.

Because many food pantries have ties to churches, the state suggested to faith-based operations that they offer brochures or establish a separate room for prayer while complying with regulations.

Brock bristled at the call to stop the prayers, but he worried about having enough food to feed the 300 or so people who show up each week for help. The federal aid accounts for about 15 percent of the food distributed by the pantry, Brock said.

Brock said the pantry workers weren’t violating the rules because no one was ever required to pray. “We still give food to people, even when they say they don’t want to pray,” he said.

Now Community Provisions of Jackson County, the state Department of Health and the United States Department of Agriculture have reached an agreement that allows the nonprofit to keep receiving food from the federal government, according to USA Today.

The resolution changes the timing of when volunteers can ask recipients about praying. The move is aimed at removing any hint of a religious requirement to get the free government food, preserving the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state, USA Today reported. Previously pantry workers asked about praying after recipients filled out an application for food assistance. Now they will wait until after recipients get their food.

Cindy Hubert, president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, said she thinks the plan addresses the concerns and needs of all the parties.

“It really wasn’t a case of anyone objecting to praying,” Hubert said. “It is just that it can never be a requirement to get food. It can’t even be perceived that way.”

Filling a grocery cart with fresh and canned goods, single mother Kathy Gabbard said she has turned to the pantry several times for assistance and has been asked whether she would like to pray. On some of those visits, Gabbard said, she accepted the invitation.

“It didn’t offend me whatsoever,” she said. “I think this is a great program.” 

At press time no reports of this type of situation could be found in Alabama. 

(RNS, TAB)

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