By Samuel Smith , CP Reporter
November 3, 2016|2:42 pm
Bethesda Mission (Photo: Facebook/Bethesda Mission)

Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

A Christian homeless shelter in Pennsylvania is no longer accepting food donations from the federal government because of new regulations that prohibits them from praying before meals.

The Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is a missionary arm of the local church that has served the homeless community for 102 years, is objecting to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's revised rules on food distributions, which state that the mission cannot conduct religious activities while distributing the USDA-donated food.

"Well, we pray before meals, so if there's a meal being served — and we serve 3,000 meals a week — if there's a meal being served with USDA food somewhere in it, then we would be prohibited from praying," the mission's Executive Director Chuck Wingate told CNS News. "We just said 'nope' that's too onerous for us and we're not going to continue to accept the food if that's a condition of receiving it."

According to a June 10 memorandum, organizations that have received the USDA food donations "may not require [a beneficiary] to attend or participate in any explicitly religious activities that are offered."

Additionally, the regulation states that organizations "must separate in time or location any privately funded explicitly religious activities from activities supported with USDA direct assistance."

As the regulations don't explicitly mention anything about prayer, Wingate told CNS that the Bethesda Mission reached out to the The Pennsylvania Food Bank, which is the organization from which the mission receives its USDA donations from, for further clarification. Wingate said officials at the food bank explained that praying before meals is prohibited.

In a statement to CP on Thursday, a USDA spokesperson said: "Religious organizations are an important partner that helps us meet our shared goals of caring for our country's most vulnerable, and making sure that every family and every child is healthy and hunger-free. Partnerships with community organizations are critical, and fidelity to constitutional principles is equally important. We welcome the partnerships of religious organizations, as long as they do not discriminate against beneficiaries based on their religious beliefs or require them to participate in religious activities to receive services."

Wingate told PennLive that the Bethesda Mission doesn't require food recipients to pray or participate in religious services in order to be fed. However, the organization's objection to the regulation is about the principle of the matter.

"We don't force our faith on anybody else," Wingate said. "But we find the whole idea that the government's going to come in a tell us what we can and cannot do in our own facility to be out of bounds, especially in matters of faith."

Wingate added that the roughly 1,000 pounds of food per month that the mission receives from the USDA, is only about 0.5 percent of the food the shelter gives out monthly.

Bethesda Mission is not the only organization in Pennsylvania to stop accepting USDA donations. Jennifer Powell, of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, told PennLive that a few other organizations have also stopped receiving USDA food.

She added that other Christian missions have adapted to the regulations and have made changes, such as holding pre-meal prayers in areas other than where the food is being served.

"There are some programs that mandate Bible study or a Christian prayer before the meal," Powell said. "There are alternatives that can be done."

Eric Saunders, the executive director of New Hope Ministries, told PennLive that although his organization continues to receive USDA donations and is complying with the regulations, he has respect for the decision made by Bethesda Mission.

"I have a lot of respect for them and the principled stand they took," Saunders said.

In a statement released earlier this year, USDA's Director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Norah Deluhery, said the "reforms will strengthen these services while reflecting the constitutional principles that define our nation."

Deluhery's reference to "constitutional principles" could reflect the Obama administration's stance that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires separation of church and state in the form of "freedom from religion."

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