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Church, state, and disaster relief

IN RECENT years, there have been a lot of complaints on the right about ''religious intolerance" from secularist liberals. Some of this talk is a conservative version of the left-wing victim mentality; sometimes the charges are legitimate. Both champions and opponents of religion in the public square have a tendency to confuse equal treatment with faith-based privilege.

Take, for instance, the debate over the Federal Emergency Management Agency's plan to reimburse churches and other religious organizations for emergency services provided to survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. To some civil libertarians, this is a violation of the separation of church and state. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has accused the Bush administration of trying to cover up for its failures by throwing a bone to the religious right.

But what is wrong with the FEMA proposal? Admittedly in part because of poor preparedness by the government, churches -- along with other private organizations -- have found their resources stretched to an unprecedented degree. They have had to provide shelter and food not just to many more people than they would normally handle, but for a much longer period of time, because the Red Cross, also overextended, has not been able to take over these services. Incidentally, it was the Red Cross, hardly an arm of the religious right, that has pressured the government to offer reimbursement to churches.

It is worth noting that, to be eligible for federal funds, religious organizations will have to meet some very specific criteria. According to FEMA, they will qualify for payments only if they provided emergency shelter, food, or medical care at the request of state or local governments in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the three states that have declared emergencies.

On television, Lynn expressed concern that compensation at taxpayer expense would go to organizations which use only volunteers of their own faith and try to convert evacuees.

In fact, if a religious organization applies for reimbursements and there is evidence that it barred volunteers of other faiths and/or engaged in aggressive proselytizing -- not just, say, handing out Bibles but getting in people's faces with their message -- I agree that they shouldn't get money. (In fact, some of the more zealous groups such as the Rev. Flip Benham's Operation Save America have already said they would refuse federal funds.) But unless there is such evidence, why not treat religious groups the same as secular ones? There is indeed a point where secularism crosses over into hostility toward religion, giving the separation of church and state a bad name.

Meanwhile, bogus charges of ''religious intolerance" are swirling over a controversy at Dartmouth College. Late in September at Convocation, which marks the start of the school's academic year, senior Noah Riner, president of the College's Student Assembly, gave a speech on character which turned into a sermon about Jesus as the only solution to character flaws: ''He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn't have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God's love: Jesus on the cross, for us." And more in that vein.

Riner came in for harsh criticism. The student paper, The Dartmouth, accused him of ''preaching his faith from a commandeered pulpit"; Student Assembly vice president Kaelin Goulet resigned to protest his ''abuse of power."

Some conservatives, such as Peter Robinson on the website of National Review magazine, see the brouhaha as liberal intolerance. Yet Riner didn't simply talk about his own faith; he spoke for ''us," delivering to the entire student body a message that excluded non-Christians. Since Dartmouth is a private institution, this is not a legal problem; but, at a school with a religiously diverse student body, it is certainly a moral one.

It is even more troubling when conservatives endorse practices in the public sector intended to convey the message that ''we as a nation" believe in God. The vast majority of Americans are religious, and should certainly be free to express their beliefs -- but not in a context which signals to nonbelievers that they are somehow less a part of this nation. And yes, the words ''under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance fall into that category. How would believers feel if they were a minority and had to pledge allegiance to ''one nation without God"?

The state should not endorse religious belief; it also shouldn't discriminate against religion. That seems a simple enough principle.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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