No Prayer, No Deal – Mission Rejects USDA Food Donations Over Regulations

By Eric Scheiner | October 31, 2016 | 9:23am EDT
Bethesda Mission sign (screen grab from

( - The Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania feels the government should not interfere with how it worships or aides the homeless, and now is rejecting U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assistance in it’s programs.

“The USDA revised regulations regarding this food distribution to say that no religious services or religious activities could occur during the distribution of the food,” Executive Director of the Bethesda Mission, Chuck Wingate tells

“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. 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.”

The USDA issued its final rule on religious liberty protections to beneficiaries of federally funded programs earlier this year.

Among the final rules, “The organization may not require a beneficiary to attend or participate in any explicitly religious activities that are offered by the organization, and any participation by the beneficiaries in those activities must be purely voluntary.”

Wingate says concerns over the regulations led to Bethesda Mission asking for clarification. The response they received from The Pennsylvania Food Bank, which is the pass-through organization for surplus USDA food donations, informed them that prayer before a meal is specifically prohibited.

“Bethesda Mission serves poor and homeless people and we’ve been doing that for 102 years, “Wingate tells “We are very concerned about the well being of our guests and clients. And we serve, in some way, 100,000 people a month and we’re very sensitive about preserving dignity and we never force our faith on others, but that said, the perception that the United States government can come in and tell us how to act - particularly in a matter of faith -in our own facility, we felt was out of bounds.”

The USDA food that was used by the Bethesda Mission amounted to roughly 1,000 pounds a month. Wingate says since the news of rejecting the USDA program has come out there has been an increase in both cash and food donations. The organization is optimistic that it will be able to continue offering its services uninhibited by the loss of the USDA food donations.

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