Freethought Watchdog Group Sues over HHS Funding of Arizona Faith-based Mentoring Program

(Madison, Wis.) The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national association of freethinkers working since 1978 to keep state and church separate, is suing to halt direct funding by Health and Human Services of a Christian mentoring program in Arizona. MentorKids USA's explicit purpose is to link exclusively Christian, church-going mentors with children of prisoners to "share the good news of who Jesus is and how he can provide a future of hope for anyone."

MentorKids USA, of Phoenix, Ariz., (called MatchPoint of Arizona when it was awarded the grant), has been given a total of $225,000 in HHS funds for the years 2003-2006. Matchpoint was launched in 1996 by Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Christian ministry founded by Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Its website advertises: "We are a faith-based organization working in partnerships with churches and the local Christian community to enlist, train and support Christian mentors."

In a memorandum seeking summary judgment filed on Nov. 23 in the U.S. District Court of Judge John Shabaz, Western District of Wisconsin, the Foundation noted: ". . . the Establishment Clause prohibits the direct funding of religious-infused programs. Mentoring to convert is not a suitable social service to be provided by the government."

The Foundation observed that HHS was not "duped" into mistakenly funding the overtly Christian program, but has "actively showcased its funding of MentorKids," refuses to release its evaluation of the grant application, and "disclaims public accountability for its handling of public funds."

The lawsuit seeks a court order to HHS to discontinue funding MentorKids, as well as an order to enjoin HHS from "further disbursement of funding to faith-based mentoring groups until HHS has a demonstrated plan in place to comply with its constitutional obligations."

The funding was approved by HHS's Administration of Children, Youth and Families Mentoring Children of Prisoners Grant Program. It was part of $9 million awarded at that time to 52 groups and was announced in person at the Tent City county jail by CYF assistant secretary Wade Horn, at an event attended by Maricopa Co. Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Oct. 3, 2003.

MatchPoint/MentorKids' Statement of Faith includes a "belief in one God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, the Co-Eternal Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Its faith statement, which is given to all mentors, also includes a belief that "the Bible is God's authoritative and inspired word that is without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, its origins and salvation, and Christians must submit to its divine authority, both individually and corporately, in all matters of belief and conduct."

The statement additionally includes a "belief that all people are lost sinners and cannot see the Kingdom of God except through the new birth. Justification is by grace through faith in Christ alone."

The group's stated goal is to provide "relationships with caring Christian mentors that provide at risk youth the capacity to grow in their personal relationships with God, their family, and their community."

MentorKids only recruits, trains and supports adult Christian mentors to work one-on-one with children ages 8-15. The group's strategy is to develop areas such as the "spiritual--we provide every opportunity for kids to know Jesus Christ the Savior and to develop a disciplined walk with God." Kids are offered opportunities for bible study and spiritual discussions.

The "Satellite Church Model" publicizes through churches, then trains mentors in "friendship evangelism." The program is predicated on a Prison Fellowship Ministries Study concluding that if a child can be "restored" to family, community and "Creator," he or she will be less likely to become a criminal offender.

The lawsuit maintains that the Establishment Clause "prohibits direct funding of religious-infused activities."

The challenge of funding of the Arizona faith-based group is the newest round in the Foundation's reconfiguration of its lawsuit originally filed in June, a broad challenge of the creation of the White House Office of Faith-based Initiatives and similar cabinet-level positions. The federal government contested the standing of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its staff members Anne Nicol Gaylor, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, as taxpayers, to sue Jim Towey (White House faith-based director) and Cabinet level "faith czars" Brent Orrell, Bobby Polito, Ryan Streeter, John Porter, Juliete McCarthy, Linda Shovlain, and Cavid Caprara, as well as Education Secretary Rod Paige. On Nov. 15, Judge Shabaz ruled that those defendants be removed from the lawsuit. The lawsuit is proceeding against several Cabinet Secretaries. Other specific faith-based programs funded by HHS will be added in the future.

The Foundation is also planning to appeal the ruling that taxpayers do not have standing to sue over Establishment Clause violations funded with general appropriations but administered by the President or federal administrators.

"If we don't have standing, that means no one has standing to sue," noted Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. Although the spending decisions are made by Pres. Bush and administrative officials, she added, the funding still comes from Congress' taxing and spending authority.

"The court's decision has profound political and policy implications. President Bush has already boasted that he bypassed Congress on his faith initiative through unilateral executive orders. The President argues he is not subject to the Establishment Clause. Can vast sums of tax dollars be used by the President without any regard for the Establishment Clause, without being subject to court scrutiny?"

The Foundation just won a federal lawsuit ruling that the Montana Office of Rural Health impermissibly gave more than a million in tax dollars to fund the Montana Faith Health Cooperative ("parish nursing"). The Oct. 27, 2004 was handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard W. Anderson, U.S. District Court, District of Montana, Butte Division. In 2002, the Freedom From Religion Foundation won the first challenge of faith-based funding under the Bush Administration, in a federal decision in the Milwaukee Faith Works case. For more information on the lawsuit, call Annie Laurie Gaylor at 608/256-5800.

To see the memorandum online, click 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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