Marriage Mistake: Constitution Prohibits Taxpayer Funding of 'Faith-Based' Marriage Counseling, Says Americans United Lawsuit

By Leaming, Jeremy | Church & State, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Marriage Mistake: Constitution Prohibits Taxpayer Funding of 'Faith-Based' Marriage Counseling, Says Americans United Lawsuit


Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State


Nancy McCarter found it more than a little odd to read in her local newspaper about federal funding for a marriage-counseling program created by a fundamentalist Christian preacher.

McCarter, a retired government inspector and Clark County, Wash., resident, had decided to start an Americans United chapter out of concern for the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. She was especially interested in the Bush administration's much-publicized push for a "faith-based" initiative, which entails funneling tax dollars to religious social-service providers.

So when McCarter read in The Columbian, a Vancouver, Wash., daily, that Northwest Marriage Institute is run by a Church of Christ minister, she decided that some research into the situation was needed. Over $47,000 in public funds was going to Bob Whiddon's Institute, and McCarter and other local AU members of the Clark County Chapter thought some investigation was in order.

"It was clear to me from the research uncovered on Whiddon that he could not separate his religious beliefs from counseling couples on marriage," McCarter told Church & State. "His beliefs about marriage are integral to his faith."

After spending time on the Northwest Marriage Institute's Web site and reading the ministry's newsletters, McCarter became incensed that public dollars were flowing to an outfit with a solely religious mission.

"The group promotes a rigid and fundamentalist view of marriage--one that is not even open to many Christians," she said.

McCarter then contacted the headquarters of Americans United to share her research, which included the additional information that the marriage institute had received more than one federal grant. In 2005, the group had received two federal grants totaling $97,750. Dena Spilker Sher, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow with Americans United, who has tracked the administration's faith-based initiative was also troubled by the federal financing of the Northwest Marriage Institute and took the lead in pursuing the case.

"You have here a clear example of the federal government using tax dollars to advance a religious group's mission," Sher said. "There is not a secular component to what the Northwest Marriage Institute does. The group exists solely to promote and propagate a religious understanding of marriage. Thus, the bottom line is that public support of the Northwest Marriage Institute is a blatant affront to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation."

Indeed, according to its mission statement, the Institute exists to provide "Bible education in marriage and related subjects, and to provide professional, Bible-based pre-marital and marriage counseling." It works to preserve "Christian marriages" by promoting "successful biblical principles everyday."

In early September, Americans United initiated a federal lawsuit challenging the public funding of Northwest Marriage Institute. The litigation, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, was brought on behalf of McCarter and 12 other Washington residents, many of them members of the Clark County Chapter of Americans United.

Another of the plaintiffs, Barry Christianson, an Americans United member since 2000 and a partially disabled Vietnam veteran, said he was inspired by the work of McCarter and the Clark County Chapter.

"This situation is an excellent example of what a group of local, committed Americans United members can do to help safeguard religious liberties," Christianson told Church & State. "And the Clark County Chapter's research on the Northwest Marriage Institute was an inspiration to other citizens here. In fact, we've already formed two chapters and are in the process of starting up others."

Christianson, who is a retired corporate finance consultant, became interested in church-state separation when living in Gardner, Mont. …

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