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Judge dismisses federal lawsuit against Northwest Marriage Institute

A judge has dismissed a federal lawsuit that accused the Bush administration of violating the separation of church and state by funding a marriage enrichment organization with ties to Churches of Christ.
U.S. District Judge Franklin D. Burgess ruled in a 15-page order that Americans United for Separation of Church and State failed to prove its claims against the Vancouver, Wash.-based Northwest Marriage Institute.
“We totally trusted God in this matter,” Bob Whiddon, who directs the Northwest Marriage Institute, said in an e-mail. “We did not win simply because we did nothing wrong. We won because God was on our side! God is good!”

Whiddon, who served as pulpit minister at the Eastside Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., for nearly 10 years before starting the marriage institute in 2004, had maintained since the lawsuit’s filing last fall that the organization was “squeaky clean in this matter.”

The judge’s ruling in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Wash., came March 20 after what Whiddon described as a “very stressful” six months for him and the organization, whose supporters include congregations and individual members.
“Our whole organization was laid bare,” Whiddon said in his e-mail, citing widespread media coverage of the lawsuit. “We opened all of our financial records, e-mail records, curriculum, newsletters. We had to disclose our donors, our present work and any future work in progress. There was nothing hidden from the plaintiffs as they searched for something to justify their claims.”
Whiddon said some of the institute’s board members resigned and some donors withdrew because of the lawsuit. “I felt that many friends deserted us,” he said. “It hurt because I knew the charges were false.”
In the lawsuit, Americans United – a political watchdog group – claimed that the Northwest Marriage Institute used federal money to provide “Bible-based” marriage education, violating the constitutional prohibition against government advancement of religion.
Along with the marriage institute, the lawsuit named Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt as a defendant. The Alliance Defense Fund, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., offered free legal representation to the institute.
In his ruling, the judge noted that the institute was loosely organized in June 2004 to provide biblical marriage counseling.
The institute’s mission statement said: “The Northwest Marriage Institute exists to serve the community by providing Bible education in marriage and related subjects, and to provide professional, Bible-based premarital and marriage counseling. We believe that every problem can be resolved and every trouble marriage can be saved. To this end we will promote successful biblical principles for everyday life. The Northwest Marriage Institute is a nonprofit service available to all people regardless of their beliefs.”
According to the order, the institute provided six to eight workshops based on biblical principles in 2005 and 2006. However, the judge cited deposition testimony by Whiddon that the institute shifted away from Bible-based marriage workshops and counseling later in 2006.
The change was prompted by a desire to qualify for operational funding from the federal government, the judge said.
“Were this court concerned solely with the institute’s initial Bible-based marriage counseling,” Burgess wrote, “it would have no difficulty finding a violation of the Establishment Clause. … However, the court is not concerned with the pre-grant programs of the institute. The institute altered its mission and no longer offers Bible-based marriage workshops. A religious motivation … in providing secular services does not transform the secular services into religious activity.”
Among other claims addressed by the judge:
— Americans United complained that “even the organization’s logo — an ambulance with a red cross and the words ‘Every Marriage Saved!’ — is intended to convey an explicitly religious message.” The judge rejected the allegation, saying: “In this context, the word ‘saved’ is more likely to convey a medical emergency connotation than a religious one, such as rescuing marriage from injury.”
— The plaintiffs asserted that the institute’s “Marriage Works!” newsletter continues to include religious content. However, the judge cited Whiddon’s testimony that the newsletter is produced on his personal computer at home rather than with any computer purchased with federal grant money. “Only private donations and private equipment are used to print, copy and distribute the newsletter,” the judge said. “A separate, secular content newsletter is provided to participants in the secular workshops.”
— Those suing the institute claimed that the new workshop materials present Bible-based messages without mention of the Bible and, as a result, are “in actuality, religiously based.” The judge said he was not persuaded by that argument. “Without reference to religion (God and the Bible), the institute’s curriculum cannot be considered sectarian,” Burgess wrote. “Otherwise, tenets of a healthy marriage, such as avoiding extra-marital affairs, could be considered religiously based simply because the same admonition is contained in the Bible.”
Americans United issued a statement expressing disappointment in the judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit, but noting that the ruling upheld key church-state principles.
“This ruling sends a clear message to religious groups that seek government funding,” said Barry Lynn, Americans United executive director. “If you take ‘faith-based’ funds for your ministry, you cannot continue to preach, pray or indoctrinate as part of that program. That’s the mandate of the Constitution.
“As an ordained minister,” Lynn added, “I am always a little surprised when ministries give up their religious witness in exchange for 30 pieces of government silver. But apparently, Northwest Marriage Institute decided to do just that.”

Whiddon told The Christian Chronicle last fall that the law does not require grant recipients to hide the nature of their organizations. 

If anyone asks about his faith after a seminar, he said, “Oh my goodness, I’ll open up.”

Filed under: National

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