Food pantry's prayers violate federal rules

March 29, 2012

c. 2012 USA Today
SEYMOUR, Ind. (RNS) Food pantry volunteer Shirley Sears patiently walked a
young woman through a series of questions on an application for emergency
assistance. After they complete the form, Sears told the woman she has one
more question.

"Is there anything," Sears asked, "that you would like us to pray with you
about?"

Yes, the woman replied without hesitation. Reaching across the small desk
that separates them, Sears grasped the woman's hands and began to pray.
That scene has been repeated thousands of times over the past 15 years
inside this small, southern Indiana food pantry operated by non-profit
Community Provisions of Jackson County.

This month, the practice was found to be against federal policy, leaving
the pantry's founder with a Solomon-like choice: Stop the prayers or give up
truckloads of free food provided through the federal Emergency Food
Assistance Program.

Paul Brock, who started the faith-based pantry in 1997, refused to order
his volunteers to quit asking recipients whether they wanted to pray. The
federal food was suspended while the sides discussed a compromise.

"These kind of cases are popping up in a lot of places around the
country," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy
Center in Washington. "People can be overly sensitive on both sides."

Cromartie said it is not a matter of stifling religious speech, but rather
following the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state
rules that come along with receiving and administering government assistance.

"If this food or money was coming from a Christian charity, there would be
no problem with praying," he explained, "but the (government) money comes
with attachments, and you have to follow the rules if you are going to take
the money."

The food pantry issue arose after an inspection last winter by Gleaners
Food Bank of Indiana, which runs the program for the Indiana Department of
Health and ensures compliance with federal guidelines. Inspectors noted that
pantry staff members asked recipients whether they wanted to pray. They
reported that to state officials, who determined the practice was a violation
of the federal rule.

"The guidelines are no religious (activity) or teaching can be required
for providing services," Gleaners spokeswoman Carrie Fulbright said.

Because many food pantries have ties to churches, the state suggested to
faith-based operations that they offer brochures or establish a separate
room for prayer while complying with regulations.

Brock bristled at the call to stop the prayers, but he worried about
having enough food to feed the 300 or so people who show up each week for help.
The federal aid accounts for about 15 percent of the food distributed by
the pantry, Brock said.

Brock said the pantry workers weren't violating the rules because no one
was ever required to pray. "We still give food to people," he said, "even
when they say they don't want to pray."

Officials from Gleaners, the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture
have been working to find a solution that meets the requirements of the law
and Brock's commitment to his faith. Brock said he "is strongly leaning
toward" signing a compromise that would allow his program to again receive
food items through the federal program if it made the offer to pray after
recipients receive their food, instead of before.

"I think I can work with that," Brock said. "But I've still got people
pushing on me from both sides."

Cindy Hubert, president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, said she
thinks the plan addresses the concerns and needs of all the parties.

"It really wasn't a case of anyone objecting to praying," Hubert said. "It
is just that it can never be a requirement to get food. It can't even be
perceived that way."

Filling a grocery with fresh and canned goods, single mother Kathy Gabbard
said she has turned to the pantry several times for assistance and has
been asked whether she would like to pray. On some of those visits, Gabbard
said, she accepted the invitation.

"It didn't offend me whatsoever," she said. "I think this is a great
program."