Fox News Radio's Todd Starnes is falsely warning that the USDA is bullying Christian organizations that distribute food to low-income individuals into "choos[ing] between Jesus and cheese," ignoring that religious organizations are allowed to provide social services as long as they comply with federal law.
In a September 9 column for FoxNews.com, Starnes said that the USDA threatened to revoke federal financial assistance from the Christian Service Center, a Christian ministry in Florida, unless the group "removed portraits of Christ, the Ten Commandments, a banner that read 'Jesus is Lord' and stop[ped] giving Bibles to the needy." The sensationalist claim is already being repeated by other right-wing media outlets. From FoxNews.com:
For the past 31 years, the Christian ministry has been providing food to the hungry in Lake City, Fla. without any problems. But all that changed when they said a state government worker showed up to negotiate a new contract.
"The (person) told us there was a slight change in the contract," [Christian Service Center Executive Director Kay] Daly told me. "They said we could no longer have religious information where the USDA food is being distributed. They told us we had to take that stuff down."
Daly said it's no secret that the Christian Service Center is a Christian ministry.
"We've got pictures of Christ on more than one wall," she said. "It's very clear we are not social services. We are a Christian ministry."
[T]he Christian Service Center had a choice: choose God or the government cheese.
So in a spirit of Christian love and fellowship, Daly politely told the government what they could do with their cheese.
"We decided to eliminate the USDA food and we're going to trust God to provide," she told me. "If God can multiply fish and loaves for 10,000 people, he can certainly bring in food for our food pantry so we can continue to feed the hungry."
But Starnes is setting up a false choice and one that the ministry is not facing.
As the USDA apparently explained to both Starnes and the ministry, long-standing First Amendment law delineating the permissible use of federal aid by religious organizations does not permit religious proselytizing of the intended beneficiaries. This basic American principle of the separation of church and state does not, however, disallow religious organizations from assisting in vital programs to assist the hungry and food insecure. In fact, the USDA under the current administration has continued to promote and strengthen partnerships between the federal government, social services, and religious organizations in service of the public and prohibits any discrimination against potential participants based on their religion.
Starnes incorrectly describes the Executive Order, which was originally signed in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush and later amended in 2010 by President Barack Obama, as requiring the ministry to abandon its religion. In reality, it provides that faith-based organizations participating in federal programs remain free to engage in "explicitly religious activities (including activities that involve overt religious content such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization)." However, pursuant to standard First Amendment case law, ministries must perform such activities and offer such counseling "outside of programs" that are federally funded. This condition on federal funds, a well-established form of ensuring constitutional compliance, ensures recipients of federal aid will not be forced to participate in religious activities they object to in order to receive food or assistance.
As Starnes himself reports, the ministry says it was told it could easily bring itself into compliance so that the public could continue to receive much-needed assistance "so long as [food distribution] was somewhere else on the property - away from anything that could be considered religious."
Nevertheless, Starnes is quick to mischaracterize the ministry's opportunities and obligations, failing to note that the organization appears to be violating federal law by keeping religious information in the food distribution area and pushing Bibles on those seeking help from CSC. The ministry freely admits as much, conflating its mission under the federal program with its religious calling "to help people in need and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are going to pray with them. We are going to offer them a Bible. We are going to counsel them in Christian help. We are going to use our chapel."
Starnes calls this a choice between "God or the government cheese," suggesting that the federal government and its agencies are punitively withholding funds from religious groups. What Starnes conveniently ignores is that the ministry can constitutionally have both, just like they always have.