FFRF Wins Landmark Ruling: HHS Ordered to “Vacate” Faith-based Funding in Mentor Case

A federal judge on January 11 ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to vacate” funding of a faith-based group, following a challenge by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as part of the first lawsuit against faith-based funding at the Cabinet level. The Phoenix mentoring group involved in the litigation is 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 stop funding MentorKids USA, which was slated to receive the final installment of a $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, following the Foundation’s lawsuit, then asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Shabaz, in refusing dismissal, 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. Its articles of incorporation call 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. . . .”

The judge 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.”

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In the same decision, Shabaz ruled in favor of HHS granting nearly $4.5 million in Capital Compassion Fund money to the Interfaith Health Program at Emory University to fund a “Strong Partners Initiative.” Emory awarded most of this money to eight or nine religiously-sponsored foundations (Strong Partner Foundations, or SPFs), which in turn gave out “sub-sub-awards” and matching grants to other groups, with stated 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 appeared to go toward setting up a faith-based bureaucracy, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Shabaz, in his decision, said that the Foundation did not produce evidence that the federal funding showed preference to religious organizations over community organizations, in a signal that such preference would violate the Establishment Clause. The Foundation had in part 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[s] applications from agencies representing other religious traditions or from nonreligious.”

Commented Gaylor: “What is being legitimized by this decision is public funding of religiously-exclusionary groups which say ‘anyone may apply,’ but which admit they give 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.”

Attorney Richard Bolton of Madison handled the lawsuits. Bolton also won rulings for the Foundation in October in a Montana federal lawsuit challenging faith-based funding, and in a 2002 lawsuit in the Faith Works case. The Foundation plans more lawsuits challenging the faith-based initiative.

Freedom From Religion Foundation