Congressional group house is subsidized by religious group, records show

The Associated Press/April 19, 2003
By Lara Jakes Jordan

Washington -- Six members of Congress live in a $1.1 million Capitol Hill town house that is subsidized by a secretive religious organization, tax records show.

The lawmakers, all Christians, pay low rent to live in the stately red brick, three-story house on C Street, two blocks from the Capitol. It is maintained by a group alternately known as the "Fellowship" and the "Foundation" and brings together world leaders and elected officials through religion.

The Fellowship hosts receptions, luncheons and prayer meetings on the first two floors of the house, which is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a church.

The six lawmakers -- Reps. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev. and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. -- live in private rooms upstairs.

Rent is $600 a month, DeMint said.

"Our goal is singular -- and that is to hope that we can assist them in better understandings of the teachings of Christ, and applying it to their jobs," said Richard Carver, a member of the Fellowship's board of directors who served as an assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.

The house, valued at $1.1 million, is owned by the C Street Center, a sister organization of the Fellowship. It received more than $145,000 in Fellowship grants between 1997 and 2000, according to IRS records -- including $96,400 in 1998 for reducing debt.

Its tenants dine together once a week to discuss religion in their daily lives.

"We do have a Bible study," said DeMint, a Presbyterian who asked to move into the house less than a year ago when there was a vacancy. "Somebody'll share a verse or a thought, but mostly it's more of an accountability group to talk about things that are going on in our lives, and how we're dealing with them."

Few in the Fellowship are willing to talk about its mission.

It organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast attended by the president, members of Congress and dignitaries from around the world. The group leaves its name off the program, even though it spent $924,373 to host the event in 2001, bringing in $606,292 in proceeds, according to the most recent available IRS records, and pays travel expenses for foreign officials to attend.

Doyle, a Catholic from Pittsburgh who moved to C Street about six years ago, got involved with the Fellowship when he began attending weekly prayer breakfasts in the Capitol as a freshman lawmaker in 1995.

Since then, Doyle has helped organize Fellowship-sponsored youth leadership seminars. He was president of the House Prayer Breakfast in 2000.

"My living arrangements are totally appropriate and within the House rules," said Doyle. "There's no direct correlation between the tenants and the Foundation -- there are tenants who have absolutely zero involvement, and some do. And there's no benefit to live there, other than the fact that it's convenient."

Other than Doyle and DeMint, current and former lawmakers who have lived in the C Street house refused to comment. "We feel like it's nobody's business but our own," said former Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., who lived there before leaving Congress to run unsuccessfully for governor in his home state last year.

That secrecy is unsettling to the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"What concerns people is when you mix religion, political power, and secrecy," Lynn said. "Members of official Washington should always be open and direct about the groups they choose to join, just to dispel any concerns that there's an inappropriate or unconscious agenda in these groups."

Lawmakers living under religion's roof is not necessarily problematic, Lynn said, "as long as there are no sweetheart deals that are being made that could trade low rent for access."

The C Street house is not the only religious-run organization that rents to lawmakers.

The United Methodist Church, for example, leases living quarters to lawmakers at its headquarters at 110 Maryland Avenue in northeast Washington, directly across the street from the Supreme Court and the Capitol. Monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment starts at $960.

"We consider it part of our mission in the ministry to provide housing for members of Congress," said Jim Winkler, a lobbyist for the church. "There's opportunities for you to talk to them. But we don't approach them and ask for their support for anything."

While the Fellowship wants leaders to use Christ's teachings in their daily work, Carver said the group does not seek to improperly influence its C Street tenants.

"We have no issue in legislation before the Congress, and nor would we," Carver said. "And the idea that we would have any quid-pro-quo is really impossible because there's no quid that we're asking for."

Other than the weekly Bible study dinner, DeMint does not feel like he lives in a religious atmosphere, and said he knows very little about the Fellowship.

"We have a lot of discussions and things like that, but if they want to have influence, they're sure not getting their money's worth," he said.

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