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Lawsuit Goes After Bush-Endorsed Agenda

Watchdog Group Files Constitutional Challenge to Public Funding of Pervasively Sectarian, "Faith-Based" Welfare Reform Program

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based national organization working to defend separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging public funding of an upstart self-described Christian program touting a "faith-based approach" in providing social services to about 28 men who are noncustodial parents with addiction problems.

Milwaukee's "Faith Works" program, which receives at least two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars, was touted by Gov. George W. Bush during a campaign visit in July. Bush pledged $185 million in federal funding for community and similar faith-based groups to "strengthen fatherhood" if he becomes president.

The Foundation's lawsuit is believed to be one of the first challenges to "charitable choice," routing welfare reform money to overtly religious groups. The first such 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 of public funds to churches to run a local jobs program with proselytizing.

The Foundation's lawsuit challenges tax expenditures totaling about $675,000 to date to a "pervasively sectarian" group.

The lawsuit names 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 had no established track record of success 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 faithbased 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.

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," the Foundation's complaint alleges.

"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 its 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 service providers that are pervasively sectarian.

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.

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