Manipulation of non-profit groups that receive state, federal, and county funds has become such an issue in Knox County that Mayor Mike Ragsdale says the procedure used to screen grant applications from such groups is changing.
The motive for the change is to insure that the non-profits will do what they say they'll do, that the activities of the non-profits are legal and beneficial to the community, and that conflicts of interest between the groups and county officials don't continue to occur. That would surely be a desirable outcome.
Considering the troubling revelations about the county's senior director of community services, Cynthia Finch, and non-profits with which she or her family members are associated, and the fact that former County Commissioner Billy Tindell, now the Commission-appointed Knox County Clerk, voted for grants to a non-profit while serving on its board, the county action is overdue.
Thousands upon thousands of dollars are at issue in taxpayer support of non-profits, many of which provide valuable community services that the county is ill-equipped and unwilling to attempt.
Non-profit organizations organized with the stated goals of providing services that are otherwise unavailable to low-income persons and families are important to the social and economic fabric of any community.
But they must do what they say they will, and their political involvement should be limited to their statements in support of their applications for public assistance.
Finch's involvement is particularly problematic, as it resides with some organizations that are beneficiaries of the Bush-administration's â“faith-based initiativesâ” funding.
Though the concept of financing faith-based initiatives with public moneys appears to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution's religious-freedom clause, that point is yet to be tested at the U.S. Supreme Court level.
The Court ruled this past June that taxpayers could not sue to block expenditures by the Executive Branch on faith-based initiatives, but it has yet to hear a case on congressional appropriations for such purposes. The June ruling made that distinction, but the court has shifted to the (religious) right under Bush, and its majority's predilections appear evident in this matter, especially when the faith-based non-profits that get government aid are predominantly Christian.
Taxpayer money should not be provided to religious groups for any purpose, if the Constitution is to be taken literally. The withdrawal now of all such support would undercut some extremely valuable services, but the fact remains that such services should be provided either by churches or the government and not shared by both, and the faith-based initiatives program should never have been initiated.
Too often with faith-based charitable institutions, the faith seems to be that the institution will provide jobs for the faithful and their friends and families as much as it focuses on the charity at hand. Those organizations, if they are to survive and serve, should be supported entirely by churches or consortia of churches. Government money shouldn't be supplied to them.
The Bush administration's own policy guidelines for its White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives say that â“secular helping agencies must be available in the same areas as faith-based helping agencies, so that people who need help do not have to accept the religious aspect in order to get help.â”
How much attention has been paid to that caveat? None, as far as we can see.
The guidelines also propose to â“eliminate unnecessary legislative, regulatory and other bureaucratic barriers that impede effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems.â” Does that mean allow the non-profit religious-backed charities to secure public funds without being subjected to careful scrutiny and regular audits? We hope not, but we aren't so sure, given the recent Knox County experience.
When Mayor Ragsdale, as he said recently, takes the position that â“we are honored to support faith-based organizations,â” what are the religious and political underpinnings of that position?
We may never know what his personal and political motives may be, but we can't think that such an attitude is an appropriate one for a creator and executor of public policy in Knox County or anywhere else in America. Our constitutional protection against â“the establishment of religionâ” should prevent that attitude from arising, let alone prevailing, in public life.
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