Foundation Goes To Court Over Charitable Choice Funding of Faith Works (November 2000)

Public funding of a pervasively sectarian Milwaukee program called “Faith Works” was challenged in a federal lawsuit filed on October 11 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national First Amendment watchdog group based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee’s Faith Works program receives at least two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars. During a campaign stop at the Faith Works office in July, Gov. George W. Bush, seated by a wall hanging covered in crosses, pledged $185 million in federal funding for similar faith-based groups to “strengthen fatherhood” if he becomes president.

The Foundation’s lawsuit has generated substantial media interest as it is believed to be only the second explicit challenge of “charitable choice,” a perilous provision in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act routing welfare reform money to overtly religious groups.

In order to receive public funding in the past, religious social service providers had to start secular arms, keep separate accounts, remove religious symbols and promise not to proselytize clients.

Under the Welfare Reform Act’s limited charitable choice provision, no such requirements are imposed. Religious groups receiving public funding under charitable choice provisions may also force religious requirements upon employees.

Bush has pledged to expand charitable choice to all federal social service programs; Gore endorsed a more limited expansion. Significantly, charitable choice’s leading proponent, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-MO, was defeated in the Nov. 7 election.

The first charitable choice challenge was filed in July by the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights project in Texas, challenging a yearly grant of $8,000 in public funds to churches running a local proselytizing jobs program.

The Foundation’s lawsuit challenges tax expenditures totaling about $675,000 to date to the Faith Works program, which touts a “faith-based approach” in providing services to some 28 men with addiction problems who have not been paying child support.

The lawsuit names Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has allocated $450,000 so far to Faith Works in discretionary funds under a Welfare-to-Work grant at the request of a former legislator, the Rev. Susan Vergeront. Faith Works in Milwaukee had no established track record when it sought government funds, the complaint notes.

“Faith Works was established in 1999 as a demonstration model, intended to show the effectiveness of using government money combined with a faith based institution, whereby success is measured by securing ongoing government funding sources,” the complaint alleges.

Also named as defendants: Jennifer Reinert, Secretary of the Department of Workforce Development; Richard Gartner, Administrator, Division of Workforce Excellence; George Lightbourn, Secretary of the Department of Administration, and Jon E. Litscher, Secretary of the Department of Corrections.

Litscher has agreed to appropriate at least $75,000 to Faith Works to provide faith-based addiction recovery services to individuals under the control of the Department of Corrections.

Faith Works, whose bylaws describe it as “inherently Christian,” and seeking to “put a holistic, faith-based approach to bring healing to mind, body, heart and soul,” rents the Queen of Apostles Convent in Milwaukee for $100,000. In addition to its mostly public grants, Faith Works has received money from the ultra-rightwing Bradley Foundation.

Clients apparently numbering fewer than 30 are interviewed about their attitudes toward faith, are required to participate in a faith-enhanced version of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, are evaluated on spirituality, and attend bible studies, prayer and chapel services.

“State appropriations to Faith Works convey a message that the Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and nonbelief, and Faith Works’ mission is clothed in traditional indicia of government endorsement,” according to the Foundation’s complaint.

“The advancement of Christian indoctrination is an integral component of the program provided by Faith Works, which indoctrination is directly funded by appropriations from the State of Wisconsin.” The complaint notes there are no provisions, restrictions, standards or oversight to prohibit use of tax money to advance, endorse and promote the establishment of religion.

The plaintiffs–the Freedom From Religion Foundation and staff members Anne Gaylor, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor–seek to enjoin further appropriations, to obtain a court declaration that the appropriations violate the establishment clause, and an order requiring the defendants to establish rules, regulations, standards and oversight to ensure future appropriations are not given to pervasively sectarian providers.

Judge Barbara Crabb, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, has drawn the case. The Foundation’s attorney is Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, Madison.

Freedom From Religion Foundation