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Indiana congressman joins food fight after pantry loses federal items over prayer

Community Provisions of Jackson County

The last remaining pallet of government food from the Emergency Food Assistance Program is removed on Friday from Community Provisions of Jackson County in Seymour, Ind.Courtesy Paul Brock

An Indiana congressman is looking into possible "misinterpretation" of federal guidelines after a local food pantry was cut off from federal aid for asking clients to pray, FoxNews.com has learned.

Todd Young, a Republican congressman serving Indiana's 9th District, has contacted state officials regarding Community Provisions of Jackson County, a food pantry in Seymour whose director, Paul Brock, insists he will not stop asking clients if they want to pray with him or one of its 45 volunteers when they receive food.

"It certainly appears there is a misinterpretation of some rules," Young's spokesman, Trevor Foughty, told FoxNews.com. "We want to make sure that no one is being denied the public assistance that they need."

Brock told FoxNews.com that he never requires anyone to pray in order to receive nourishment they need.

"We ask them if they want to pray with us; if they say no, then we just let them go on through," Brock said. "We're not a church. My job is to feed them and if I can pat them on the back and pray for them and lift them up somehow, that’s what I'm going to do."

Brock said 98 percent of those asked ultimately pray with Community Provisions volunteers. He said his First Amendment rights are being "trampled upon" by state officials.

"People know what we stand for in this community," he said. "People tell us what's wrong with them and ask us to pray for them. I don't want the state of Indiana to take that right away from me."

That scenario, however, flies in the face of a regulation in the national Emergency Food Assistance Program, which states that no "political, religious, or any other non-related activity can be conducted as a condition of, or in conjunction with, receiving commodities or prepared meals" containing commodities.

Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, which administers the federal program for Indiana's State Department of Health, ensures compliance by food pantries with those guidelines. Carrie Fulbright, a spokeswoman for the organization, told FoxNews.com that while Community Provisions remains a partner agency in "good standing," it no longer receives federal food items.

"The state of Indiana has determined they are not meeting the guidelines for distribution of the emergency food assistance program distributed through the USDA," a statement from Fulbright read. "As the administrative agency and at the direction of the state, Gleaners has removed the federal food from Community Provisions. However, it will remain in Jackson County and be distributed through the three other agencies in the county that are able to distribute federal food."

Representatives from Gleaners visited the pantry on Friday and picked up a remaining pallet of federal commodities. If the state ultimately reverses its decision, those items will be returned to the pantry, Fulbright said. 

Gleaners took over administration of the federal commodities program in October. Fulbright said more than 75 percent of food pantries served by the organization are faith-based agencies that do distribute federal food items.

"What we have seen other faith-based food pantries do is to provide signage, have brochures, have prayer cards or have a separate prayer room," Fulbright said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told FoxNews.com in a written statement that religious activities by such organizations aren't forbidden, as long as participation isn't a condition of assistance.

"USDA was recently made aware of the situation in Indiana and is working to provide guidance to the state agency that administers the program," the statement said.

Brock, meanwhile, has operated the food pantry since 1997 and said he never had a problem before Gleaners became the administrator of the federal program. He said the federal commodities constitute roughly 15 percent of its program.

Brock said he has appealed the decision to Indiana's Department of Health, but Amy Reel, a spokeswoman for that agency, said no formal appeal process exists pertaining to the federal commodities program.

Brock is now calling on state and federal officials for a clearer directive that does away with any chance of misinterpretation.

"Write it like you mean it, and be done with it," he said.

Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, which provides food to more than 37 million Americans annually, said similar issues have "very rarely" been a concern for the 61,000-plus food pantries it serves.

"When there have been problems or concerns regarding this issue in the past, they have been quickly resolved," Fraser said in a statement to FoxNews.com. "We are confident that all parties involved will be able to work out a satisfying resolution.”