MSU faith-based project violates Constitution, judge rules

A federal judge in Butte has ruled that Montana State University and its Office of Rural Health violated the separation of church and state by using federal money from President Bush’s “faith-based inititative” for programs that promote religion.

Magistrate Judge Richard Anderson ordered David Young, director of MSU’s Office of Rural Health, to stop giving federal funds to parish nursing programs and particularly to the Carroll College Parish Nurse Center.

The judge also ordered Young and MSU to stop housing the offices of the nonprofit Montana Faith-Health Cooperative and subsidizing it with a Web site, clerical and leadership services.

“This blatant public endorsement and preference of faith and religion over non-faith and irreligion runs afoul” of the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion, Anderson wrote.

Young, who won a $614,000 three-year grant from the federal Compassion Capital Fund demonstration program, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the 5,000-member Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which brought the lawsuit on behalf of itself and three taxpayers, said she was happy with the ruling, although it doesn’t get back any of the money that has already been spent.

“That’s the real travesty,” Gaylor said. “Taxpayers lost out altogether. It’s not scientific, it’s not legal. But we are delighted. We consider it a major victory.”

Leslie Taylor, MSU’s legal counsel and one of two university attorneys who defended the case, said she hadn’t yet read the ruling and didn’t know whether MSU would appeal.

MSU argued, Taylor said, that this faith-based project was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for precisely the activities that were carried out. The funded Montana health projects were consistent with the federal regulations and with the Constitution, she said.

Food banks, Habitat for Humanity, prisoner rehabilitation and other local programs applied to MSU’s Office of Rural Health for small federal grants of around $5,000 to $10,000. Nearly two-thirds of the money has gone to MSU’s overhead, salaries and an annual conference.

Parish nurses do engage in faith-based activities, Taylor said, but regulations are clear that that part of their activities cannot be funded with federal money.

The judge ruled that with parish nurses, it’s impossible to separate the two. Parish nurses, trained at Catholic Carroll College, visit rural residents and bring them both nursing and religious services, including communion and prayer.

“Young acted with the clear primary purpose of promoting and endorsing the use and application of Judeo-Christan principles,” the judge wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held since 1971 that government funds cannot be used to advance or inhibit religion, Anderson wrote.

The parish nursing program received a preference in getting money from Young’s office, not having to go through competitive bidding, he wrote.

Young, a Congregational church member and rural chaplain, often ended his e-mail correspondence with biblical passages, until told to stop last year, according to the ruling.

“Young believes that the people with a strong faith background are healthier and that having a faith or spiritual orientation promotes one’s health,” the judge wrote, adding Young is entitled to his belief, but not to promote it through MSU.

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