Magazine article Church & State

Faith-Based Flop: Bible-Based Marriage Institute Drops Religion to Keep Public Funding and Duck out of AU Lawsuit

Magazine article Church & State

Faith-Based Flop: Bible-Based Marriage Institute Drops Religion to Keep Public Funding and Duck out of AU Lawsuit

Article excerpt

Tony Perkins struck a cocksure tone in reaction to a federal court's dismissal of a legal action challenging government funding of a "faith-based" marriage counseling program.

Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, crowed that the Northwest Marriage Institute (NMI) and its attorneys had "successfully convinced the court that religious groups--that provide valuable social services cannot be treated like 'second-class citizens'" and that such groups could "provide valuable social services" using public dollars.

The Religious Right leader's take on the outcome in Christianson v. Leavitt, however, proves disingenuous upon a close reading of the decision.

In reality, on March 20, U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess concluded that federal funding of NMI is permissible only because the group had yanked all religious references from its formerly "Bible-based" program. If the group had persisted in peddling religious counseling with the support of public funds, there would be a clear constitutional violation, wrote Burgess.

In fall 2006, Americans United, representing taxpayers in Washington state, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and NMI over several federal grants to the religious group.

Based in Vancouver, Wash., the Institute received federal funds totaling $97,750 in 2005. Some of the grant money came from the HHS's Compassion Capital Fund, which is used to help religious groups offer social services. Subsequently, HHS also awarded something called a Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grant totaling $246,000. That grant is renewable in the same amount for four years, thus propelling public funding to more than $1 million.

Americans United argued in its lawsuit that the public funds were used by NMI to further its pervasively sectarian marriage counseling and were, therefore, a violation of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

"Governmental cash aid is being diverted into the coffers of a religious organization," stated AU's lawsuit.

In September 2006, not long after the litigation was lodged, the Religion News Service quoted NMI founder Bob Whiddon Jr., a former minister in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, as saying, "We are a faith-based organization and we do provide faith-based counseling.... I use the Bible as my counseling manual."

Whiddon had also boasted of the religious nature of his work in other venues. In a 2002 newsletter, Widdon asserted, "God designed marriage. He created it.... He wrote the rules on how it is to function well."

NMI materials were also laden with Bible references. For instance, a quiz on the group's Web site asked, what does it mean when "the Bible says that the 'husband is head of the wife'?" Another online document claimed that "65 percent of all who live in Oregon and 67 percent of all who live in Washington have no connection to any church," so there is a "great need" to "take biblical marriage education and biblical marriage-counseling to the communities."

In his 15-page ruling, Burgess dismissed Americans United's lawsuit only because Whiddon's group had reconfigured its marriage counseling courses. Indeed, Burgess concluded that it would be unconstitutional for NMI to offer religion-based marriage counseling with public dollars.

"An absolute in Establishment Clause jurisprudence is the prohibition against government-financed or government-sponsored indoctrination into the beliefs of a particular religious faith," wrote the judge.

Citing Whiddon's testimony, Burgess noted that "beginning in April 2005 and culminating in the formal change in its mission statement in October 2006, The Marriage Institute shifted its mission from providing Bible-based marriage workshops and counseling to providing marriage workshops without religious references. This change was prompted by a desire to qualify for operational funding from the federal government. …

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