Landmark Decision: Health & Human Services Ordered to "Vacate" Faith-based Funding of MentorKids USA

(Madison, Wis.) The Department of Health and Human Services was ordered yesterday for the first time by a court to "vacate" funding of a faith-based group. The challenge by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, part of the first lawsuit against faith-based funding at the Cabinet level, involved a Phoenix mentoring group, an offshoot of Watergate felon Chuck Colson's prison ministry.

U.S. District Court Judge John C. Shabaz, of the Western District of Wisconsin, ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to "vacate" continued funding of MentorKids USA. MentorKids was slated to receive the final installment of its $225,000 federal grant. MentorKids USA works exclusively with Christian, churchgoing volunteers to be a "presence for Jesus" in the lives of children of incarcerated prisoners. Mentors must sign a religious mission statement that the bible is "without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, its origins and salvation."

HHS voluntarily suspended funding of the program on Dec. 16, then asked the court to dismiss the Foundation lawsuit. Shabaz found that the federal government failed to "prove there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated" and ruled the funding unconstitutional.

He wrote that "federal funds have been used by the MentorKids program to advance religion in violation of the Establishment Clause."

Shabaz devoted several pages of his 21-page ruling to a summary of the Foundation's factual objections to the religion-infused MentorKids. Shabaz noted that its articles of incorporation called its mission "To exalt the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the World and the head of his church," and "To propagate the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. . ."

Shabaz noted: "MentorKids recruits and hires only Christians as mentors," even requiring them to write an essay in which they must "Briefly describe how you might be able to share your Christian faith with a youth." He added: "Potential mentors receive a 'fact sheet' stating that 'mentors introduce children to the gospel of Jesus Christ, allowing them to build their lives on the solid foundation of God's love.'

"MentorKids requires its mentors to adhere to a Christian Statement of Faith and Code of Conduct," the decision continued. "The manual advises mentors to 'pray for your mentee,' " and instructs them to "read, act out or talk about Biblical examples of where Jesus showed grace to people" and to "introduce your mentee to the scriptures and point out that John 3:16 states that Jesus is God's redemption plan for everyone."

MentorKids' also requires mentors to provide monthly reports on whether their mentee "seems to be progressing in relationship with God," and whether they have "participated in Bible Study;" "Attended Church;" or "accepted Christ this month."

Shabaz failed to enjoin HHS, as requested by the Foundation, from "further disbursement of funding to faith-based mentoring groups until HHS has a demonstrated plan in place to comply with its constitutional obligations."

In the same decision, Shabaz ruled in favor of HHS granting nearly $4.5 million to the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University in Capital Compassion Fund money to fund a "Strong Partners Initiative" in which Emory awarded money to eight or nine religiously-sponsored foundations (Strong Partner Foundations, or SPFs), who in turn gave out "sub-sub-awards" and matching grants to other groups, with preference to faith based community organizations "which have links to local congregations; and which attempt to engage body/mind spirit." The Foundation submitted evidence that 80% of these grants was awarded to religious organizations.

Most of this money was designated and appeared to go toward setting up a faith-based bureaucracy, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Shabaz ruled that the Foundation did not produce evidence that the federal funding showed preference to religious organizations over community organizations. The Foundation cited Emory University's grant application, which admitted "some of the foundations exercise a preference in their private grant making for competent applications which reflect their own religious heritage, [while] none of them exclude applications from agencies representing other religious traditions or from nonreligious."

Said Gaylor: "What is being legitimized by this decision is public funding of religiously-exclusionary groups which say 'anyone may apply,' but which admit giving preference to applicants of their own faith! We believe this statement is a 'smoking gun,' and that the proof is in the pudding--nearly $4.5 million in tax dollars went almost exclusively to faith-based organizations to promote other faith-based organizations."

Read the decision here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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