Faith-based organizations face suits

Groups using federal funds are accused of proselytizing

WASHINGTON — Faith-based groups are barred from proselytizing or engaging in other obvious religious activity when using federal funds to encourage teenagers to abstain from premarital sex or help substance abusers fight addictions.

But some groups may have run afoul of that federal prohibition. Lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation accuse the faith-based organizations and the government of violating the constitutional separation of church and state. Meanwhile, experts say the Bush administration is doing too little to monitor religious groups receiving federal money.

Critics cite the Silver Ring Thing program that preaches sexual abstinence to teens. It is known for pulsing, high-tech, multimedia shows at which teenagers can buy silver rings to symbolize their pledge to avoid sex until marriage.

In the past year, the Health and Human Services Department suspended a grant of more than $1 million to Silver Ring Thing after the ACLU of Massachusetts sued the department, accusing it of mixing religion with the sexual abstinence message. At the shows, Silver Ring Thing openly urged teenagers to commit their lives to Jesus Christ, and the rings it sold were inscribed with a New Testament verse.

“When the government looked into the situation in our case, they obviously came to the same conclusion, that in fact their grant was not being used properly and consistently with the Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, a 1st Amendment expert at the Jenner & Block law firm that has represented the Massachusetts ACLU in the case.

Experts on faith-based groups that receive federal funds say vague government rules have contributed to the situation, as has a lack of government monitoring.

Although Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family Services long ago learned to clearly separate religion from the government-funded social services they provide, experts say some new recipients of federal funding–often groups operating out of churches, synagogues, mosques and storefronts–are less careful. And critics say the monitoring of these groups has not kept pace with the increase in applicants for money since President Bush began lowering their barriers to federal funding in 2001.

“There is little to no monitoring of faith content of services,” Fredrica Kramer, a scholar at the Urban Institute, a research organization here, said at a recent panel discussion on faith-based groups.

`Inherently religious’ activities

According to the federal rules, faith-based groups receiving government aid for social service programs may not use federal dollars for any “inherently religious” activities. Further, participation in religious activities by someone who receives assistance must clearly be voluntary. And people receiving government money to fight substance abuse must be offered a non-religious alternative if they voice discomfort with the use of a faith-based provider.

But the rules are ambiguous in other areas, Ira Lupu, a George Washington University Law School professor, told a conference last month in Atlanta sponsored by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

“Is it permissible,” he asked, “to have religious themes, religious content, religious activity, religious focus, religious transformation as part of social service? As part of work training? As part of substance abuse counseling? As a part of sexual abstinence teaching?”

Urban Institute researchers discovered an after-school child-care program run by a faith-based group that was cited by federal officials as a model, yet it was using Bible stories to teach reading skills to children.

Bush administration officials defend their efforts to inform faith-based organizations on what is and isn’t allowed.

“I wouldn’t necessarily agree there’s not enough guidance,” said Josephine Robinson, director of the Office of Community Services within the Health and Human Services Department.

Her office funds programs in four “priority” areas: assisting at-risk youths, combating homelessness, providing assistance to rural communities and promoting healthy marriages.

“We provide significant training and guidance to all of our grantees … about the explicit separation of religious activity and proselytizing from any activities that are funded by [government] money,” she said.

She acknowledged, however, that there are limits to how much direct monitoring of grant recipients can be done by her office. She has a staff of only four, and her office oversees an estimated 330 groups.

Jeffrey Trimbath, director of the Health and Human Services abstinence-education program, which funded Silver Ring Thing, said he could not discuss the case because of the ACLU’s pending lawsuit.

Operating under different federal regulations than Robinson, Trimbath said he hopes his Washington-based staff of six would be able to visit all 144 community-based abstinence-education programs over a three-year period. To date, he said, “probably five” have gotten “formal site visits.”

`I felt helpless,’ inmate says

The existing regulations are meant to prevent cases such as that of Joseph Hanas. After he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession, a county drug court judge in Michigan gave the 23-year-old Flint construction worker a choice: agree to live for a year at Inner City Christian Outreach, a faith-based residential facility, or be sent to jail. Hanas chose Inner City, which is run by a Pentecostal church.

At Inner City, staffers told Hanas that his Roman Catholic faith was “witchcraft” and prevented his priest from visiting him or giving him his rosary beads, Hanas said.

And instead of substance-abuse treatment, Hanas said he was forced to read the Bible several hours each day, attend five hours of church on Sundays and was told the only way he would successfully complete the program was to convert to the Pentecostal church.

“I felt helpless. I was threatened by prison and jail by the pastor the whole time I was in there,” Hanas said. After three months, the judge responded to his complaints by removing him and sending him to jail.

No one at Inner City returned a phone call for comment, and it couldn’t be immediately determined what taxpayer money, if any, his program has received.

The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have Hanas released on probation on grounds that the drug court, by sending him to Inner City, violated Hanas’ 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion as well as the “establishment” clause requiring the separation of church and state.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Chicago Tribune, USA
Jan. 2, 2005
Frank James, Washington Bureau
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 3, 2006.
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