An audit of USAID's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives recently revealed that some of the funds awarded by the federal development agency were "used for religious activities."
The funds, which amounted to more than $325,000, were reportedly used for the rehabilitation of four mosques and adjoining community centers in Iraq and also for programs for African youth that provided curricula on abstinence and behavior change containing biblical stories and religious messages.
"This audit report does not dispute the fact that questions concerning Establishment Clause issues are highly complex and need to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Nor does this audit try to determine the legality of religiously infused programming sponsored by the Agency," clarified the Office of Inspector General in its 19-page report.
It did, however, make seven recommendations to the agency, the first being to consult with the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to resolve the legal question related to what program activities it may or may not fund.
According to the Inspector General's office, USAID had requested legal clarification on the issue from the Department of Justice in 2007 but has still not yet received final guidance.
"Despite this uncertainty, USAID generally implemented policies and procedures for awards to faith-based and community organizations in accordance with the Executive order and Agency regulations," the report noted.
The Inspector General's office also offered recommendations including revising internal guidance to make it more thorough and to agree with the policy that faith-based organizations should have an equal footing in competing for federal financial assistance.
So far, in their response, representatives from USAID's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (CFBCI) have informed Inspector General Steven H. Bernstein that the issues raised in his office's report "are not unique to the implementation of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."
"The challenge in most policy changes impacting the use of government funds is ensuring that they are implemented correctly at the grant and contract level," they stated after receiving a draft copy of the audit last month.
While CFBCI management said in their response letter that they appreciate the opportunity to clarify and improve USAID's policies and procedures with regard to grants with faith-based organizations, they also expressed concern regarding the audit's first recommendation.
"While Recommendations 2 through 7 are relatively straightforward and will indeed be complied with, we are concerned that Recommendation 1 reaches an unwarranted conclusion regarding the very complex Establishment Clause legal questions that have been raised by certain programmatic activities undertaken by the Agency," they stated.
"The Constitutionality of USAID programs overseas can only be determined on a case by case basis and thus there can be no 'one size fits all' legal resolution of this question," they added.
The management also pointed out that unless and until a particular fact pattern is contested, it remains speculation as to whether USAID funds were used for "religious activities" that would be impermissible under the agency guidelines and the Establishment Clause.
"Nevertheless, we confirm that we will, consistent with Recommendation 1, continue to be in contact with the White House FBNP Office on the very complex Establishment Clause issues that are raised by certain programmatic activities undertaken by the Agency," they concluded before explaining in further detail their response to each recommendation.
USAID's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established in 2002 to assist with an initiative launched by then-President George W. Bush to improve opportunities for faith-based organizations to compete for federal funding.
Bush's initiative sought to "level the playing field" for faith-based organizations to compete for Federal awards and to ensure that such funding complies with federal laws – including laws that relate to separation of church and state.