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Marriage group with church ties hit with lawsuit

A federal lawsuit filed by a national political watchdog group accuses the Bush administration of violating the separation of church and state by funding a marriage enrichment organization associated with Churches of Christ.
The lawsuit by Americans United for Separation of Church and State puts the Vancouver, Wash.-based Northwest Marriage Institute, directed by Bob Whiddon Jr., at the center of an escalating national debate.
In the lawsuit filed this fall in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Americans United claims that the Northwest Marriage Institute uses federal money to provide “Bible-based” marriage education, violating the constitutional prohibition against government advancement of religion.
“This program trains people in how to make their marriages conform to one narrow interpretation of faith,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The federal government has no business forcing the taxpayer to subsidize that. The Bush administration must not be allowed to join church and state in unholy matrimony.”
Along with the marriage institute, the lawsuit names 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.
The case “has the potential to be quite significant,” Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University law professor and an expert on Bush’s effort to make more federal money available to faith-based groups, told The Christian Chronicle.
Under its healthy marriage initiative, the federal government plans to spend $750 million over the next five years on marriage-related education and research, Tuttle said. Although the institute received funding under a different federal fund, the lawsuit represents the first Establishment Clause challenge to a faith-based program of marriage education and counseling, he said.
“The lawsuit raises difficult and novel questions about the constitutionality of government financial assistances in building the capacity of religious organizations,” Tuttle and a colleague, Ira C. Lupu, wrote on the Web site of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.


The lawsuit casts the institute’s religious beliefs as highly sectarian: “Not only are they Christian, but they derive from a specific form of biblical literalism particular to fundamentalist Christianity.”
“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 petition states.
At issue are two federal grants that the institute received totaling nearly $100,000.
Whiddon said the grants funded infrastructure, such as buying computer equipment and hiring a fund-raising consultant.
“We understand that we cannot use federal funds for Bible-based or faith-based activities,” he said.
The institute has been awarded an additional federal grant — expected to total $1.25 million over five years — to deliver direct community services, Whiddon said. Those services will include marriage education workshops for low-income families.
But Whiddon said the institute has developed a curriculum for the non-religious presentation of workshops.
“A lot of the principles are still the same because they work,” he said. But instead of quoting the Bible, Whiddon said, he will refer to major secular research.
Shaun Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit underscores the difficulty of faith-based groups delivering secular services.

“This is, frankly, one of my problems with the whole initiative: It puts tremendous pressure on the faith-based group to separate its theological content and its secular mission,” said Casey, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia.

For years, federal money has helped groups such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and even Central Dallas Ministries feed and house the poor.
But taxpayer support of marriage seminars forces religious people to compromise their message, Casey said.
“My counsel to any faith-based group that wants to take this money would be that they really need to think long and hard about the consequences,” he said. “From a Christian perspective, my gut tells me … I don’t want to hide our light under a bushel.”
Whiddon said 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.”
Larry James, CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, which is associated with Churches of Christ, said he sees the potential for abuse by groups that attempt to use taxpayer dollars for evangelism purposes.
“It may be, in fairness to the group here, that those bringing the suit are using them as an example and doing so unfairly, but I doubt it,” James said. “Lots of these suits could be brought based upon what I have observed in practice.”
James said Central Dallas Ministries adheres to the Franciscan approach of “preach the gospel at all times — use words only when necessary.”
In Fort Worth, Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union made an exhaustive open records request recently concerning federal grants received by NewDay Services for Children and Families, another organization associated with Churches of Christ. Lane Dilg with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington, D.C., declined to comment when reached by the Chronicle.
NewDay retained the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas, whose litigation director, Hiram Sasser, promptly contacted the ACLU. “We wanted to make sure that they knew that they didn’t have a soft target anymore, which usually makes them go away,” Sasser said. “They’re typically looking for people to pick on who are small and undefended, who might not fight them, or if they do fight them, might have a lawyer who is not up to speed.”
NewDay has accepted federal funding since 2003 for a 10-week program that educates non-custodial fathers behind in their child support payments.
Director Elna Vanderberg said the course does not “proselytize or attempt to impose our religious views.”

“It’s very difficult not to articulate your faith when teaching a program like that,” said Vanderberg, a member of the University Church of Christ in Fort Worth. “But we also found that, as we taught these classes, your kindness, your compassion, your genuine caring come through.”

Nov. 10, 2006

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