Church-paid trips by aides raise questions on religion-politics mix

A review of White House travel records shows churches and other religious entities paid for close to a quarter of the privately funded trips taken by White House aides since late 2006.

Critics, who see this as evidence the administration is mixing faith and public policy, say religious groups may feel pressure to sponsor aides’ travel in order to secure government funding for their own work.

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“I think there would be very few circumstances where a religious organization or church paying government officials wouldn’t lead to a conflict of interest,” said Terri Schroeder, a senior lobbyist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Groups like the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), which paid for former White House aide Tim Goeglein to travel to its annual convention in 2007 for a speech, counter that the White House has a responsibility to connect with religious organizations.

“People of faith make up a crucial American demographic. Frankly, we would think it rather odd if an administration neglected religious groups in its sphere of contacts,” said Craig Parshall, the NRB’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The review of government records, undertaken by The Hill, found at least 24 trips for staff members to President Bush were paid for by churches or other religious groups. Faith-based organizations paid for the most travel in the time period, followed by universities and think tanks, which paid for 15 trips each.

Groups paying for trips include the United Pentecostal Church, the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Among presidential aides, the most frequent traveler was Goeglein, a former special assistant to the president considered a key part of the president’s political team. He took 23 trips worth more than $23,000.

Goeglein, who is close to Bush’s former top political aide Karl Rove, often served as the president’s liaison to social and religious conservative groups and helped found the Faith-Based Office.

{mospagebreak}In February 2007, records show, Goeglein accepted a trip to speak at the Council for National Policy on Amelia Island, Fla. The Council is a forum of Christian and other conservative leaders who are heavily involved in Republican politics.

Goeglein did not return messages left for him. He resigned earlier this year after reports surfaced that he had plagiarized several columns for his hometown newspaper in Fort Wayne, Ind.

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Jay Hein, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has taken 10 trips since October 2006, the second-most among White House aides. The total value of the trips was more than $5,000, according to records.

Overall, the White House aides accepted money for more than 100 trips worth more than $74,000. The funds from outside sponsors paid for transportation as well as for meals and lodging in some cases.

The Hill’s analysis is based on records submitted by the White House to the Office of Government Ethics, detailing trips from October 2006 to March 2008.

“A wide range of representatives from public, private and nonprofit organizations from across the country frequently invite White House officials to discuss the federal government’s role and responsibilities in relation to their organization’s mission,” said Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for the White House.

“Administration officials participate in these events as part of regular outreach. Each request is subject to a thorough internal review process to ensure that administration participation is relevant and appropriate,” she said.

White House aides also accepted trips from a number of well-known conservative organizations and think tanks, such as the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation . Many academic institutions — Harvard University and Yale University, to name a pair — paid for staff members’ travel as well.

The ACLU’s Schroeder believe churches can lose their independence through the White House contact.

“When you have organizations competing for scarce resources, you put churches in the position of almost lobbying the government for assistance,” said Schroeder. “The flipside is that you also have a government that courts churches as a prompt to engage in more supportive behavior.”

But Parshall, who said Goeglein’s speech centered on the right of broadcasters to preach Christian doctrine, dismissed the idea that the integrity of religious organizations could be jeopardized.

“We don’t support or endorse political parties or candidates,” said Parshall. “We are issue-driven, rather than personality-driven, in deciding how we pursue our mission statement of keeping the doors of electronic media open to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of that, we don’t feel that our independence is impacted or compromised.”

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State , said his wish is to see the office shut down altogether.

“The office has become a system of rewards for conservative Christian groups who support the Bush administration,” Boston said.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), however, has said he would expand the office if elected to the White House. GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has said faith-based initiatives are generally a good idea, but have not always been carried out successfully.

Schroeder said whoever enters the White House next January should change the office’s priorities. She urges the next president to figure out ways to better advocate for community initiatives without infringing upon the rights of religious groups.