Will Bush's faith-based plan aid fringe groups, hate mongers and cults?

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune/August 7, 2001
By Greg Gordon and Kevin Diaz

Washington -- Followers of the International Churches of Christ believe in putting their faith into action.

Most volunteer for the church's global social services arm - HOPE worldwide - that has drawn acclaim from President Bush for treating patients with leprosy, AIDS and other diseases in 75 countries.

HOPE worldwide would seem an obvious candidate for federal funding if Congress were to enact Bush's faith-based initiative. That would be a problem for cult-awareness leaders.

Teresa Kelly, president of Minneapolis-based Free Minds Inc., says she was a member and top recruiter for the International Churches of Christ until her parents "kidnapped and deprogrammed" her. She and other critics allege that the church is a cult-like operation that relies on mind-control techniques to hold members.

Al Baird, a spokesman for the 120,000-member church, adamantly denies these allegations and says the group would not use government money to convert people Yet the complaints illustrate part of the controversy surrounding Bush's initiative. Critics argue that the president's plan would open the door to fringe groups and nontraditional religions - including the Hare Krishnas, Scientologists and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church - to use federal grant money to gain stature and expand their bases.

Some skeptics raise the specter of government funding for followers of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader whose allegedly anti-Semitic views have stirred worldwide controversy.

The faith-based legislation "opens the door for hate groups to receive taxpayers' dollars to support their racist and extreme views," said Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Bush and his allies say his faith-based charities effort is where compassionate conservatism meets a pluralistic society.

Calling the safeguards "quite adequate," Ramstad noted that "service providers have to meet specific program criteria, and the money can't be used for proselytizing."

He said that the initiative merely expands a "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 welfare overhaul law that allows religious groups to obtain federal funds to help shift the poor from welfare rolls to the job market.

Under a version of Bush's initiative that passed the House in July, the White House would not disburse grants, but would let faith-based charities seek money from an array of federal programs in areas such as housing, criminal justice, health and education.

While religious-based activities could not receive direct funding, religious groups could take tax dollars through vouchers, distributed to individuals seeking help with few strings attached.

Jack Horner, legislative director for Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., who spearheaded the GOP faith-based initiative in the House, said the fear that federal grants may go to unpopular religious groups overlooks the current reality of federal funding to secular nonprofits with social values that many Americans find offensive.

Bush has assured supporters that he would not send public dollars to groups promoting "spite and hate."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has signaled his opposition to Bush's plan and could prevent a floor vote. The chief Senate sponsor, Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has agreed to drop the most controversial provision - language exempting religious charities from state or local job discrimination laws.

Supporters stress that the bill dedicates no specific pot of money. But detractors worry that as much as $47 billion in federal funds could be distributed during the next 10 years in vouchers to individuals. The vouchers could be used for services from groups that infuse their social programs with faith and spirituality.

Charities set up by some nontraditional religious groups - including the Scientologists and Hare Krishnas - could receive a financial windfall. Some of the charities they operate include:

The Scientologists have formed multiple independent, not-for-profit social services entities, including Narconon, a program in 19 cities that uses nutrition and sauna therapy to rehabilitate drug addicts and has received three state grants; the World Literacy Crusade, with 46 U.S. centers, and Criminon, an extension course aimed at rehabilitating prison inmates.

Devotees of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness run shelters, kitchens and food shelves worldwide through Food for Life Global. The independent, nonprofit charity has received as much as $25million in federal, state and local government funding during the past 20 years - a figure likely to increase under Bush's initiative, said David Dobson, executive director of the group's Philadelphia programs.

Baird, the California-based spokesman for the International Churches of Christ, said leaders of HOPE worldwide "certainly would be interested" in Bush's initiative if the constraints are not too great.

Kelly, however, offers a different picture of the church and its followers. She said she was drawn in at a vulnerable time in her life, after moving to Louisville, Ky., in late 1983 and being jilted by a boyfriend.

She said the church required her to report her every activity and details of all of her relationships to a "discipler," who oversaw three or four people, gaining control over them with sleep and food deprivation. She said the "discipler" reported to a similar, higher-level "discipler" in a pyramid arrangement that eventually reached the top. "Reading books outside the cult is not allowed," she said. "I was a piano performer and gave it up within a week, because it was selfish to spend time other than recruiting people."

In 1989, after she had kept her parents at a distance for years, she said they abducted her and helped her realize she had been a victim of mind-control techniques.

Priscilla Coates, president of the board of the Leo J. Ryan Foundation, one of two national cult-awareness groups, said she has followed the International Churches for 20 years. Calling the group "very controlling," she said it has been "growing rapidly, in California especially."

She argued that under Bush's initiative, it would be impossible for the government to draw the line between bona fide charities and front groups for cults.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.