Americans United for Separation of Church and State: Federal Government Should Block Earmarks for Religious Work

February 25, 2008
11:34 AM

CONTACT: Americans United for Separation of Church and State
(202) 466-3234
Joe Conn
Rob Boston
Jeremy Leaming

Federal Government Should Block Earmarks for Religious Work, Says Americans United
Church-State Watchdog Group Highlights a Slew of Constitutionally Suspect Appropriations

WASHINGTON, DC - February 25 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged federal agencies to block constitutionally suspect earmarks directing tax dollars to a string of religious organizations.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson and Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Americans United challenges 10 grants of public dollars for religious organizations or programs that appear to violate the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state.

The Americans United letter identifies an additional 16 earmarks that raise constitutional concerns and should only be issued if the federal agencies “can ensure that the grant funds will be restricted to secular activities and not be used to support religious coercion or discrimination….”

“Government pork for religious work is never kosher,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The federal government should never use public funds to directly support religious missions. The bulk of these earmarks are highly suspect because they are directed at groups or programs that include heavy doses of proselytization.”

Americans United’s letter notes that the departments of Justice (DOJ), Housing (HUD), Education (DOE) and Health and Human Services (HHS) all have regulations intended to bar direct funding of overtly religious work.

For example, Justice Department regulations state that “[o]rganizations that receive direct financial assistance from [DOJ] under any Department program may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious indoctrination, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services.”

All the agencies, Americans United notes in its letter, have similar regulations that bar federally funded programs from discriminating based on religion in providing the services.

HHS regulations provide that all groups receiving federal grants “shall not, in providing program services or engaging in outreach activities under applicable programs, discriminate against a program beneficiary on the basis of religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to actively participate in a religious practice.”

The letter, composed by Legal Director Ayesha Khan, Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and Madison Fellow Nancy Leong, details 10 earmarks that appear to run afoul of the First Amendment. Those earmarks include:

* A $47,000 Justice Department grant to several Teen Challenge, Albany, N.Y., programs, including one called “Rock the Block.” That program, according to Teen Challenge, is intended to bring “the life-changing message of salvation through Jesus Christ to the city streets.” Teen Challenge’s Web site notes that this program includes religious activities, such as altar calls and distribution of Bibles and “salvation cards.”
* A $282,000 Justice Department grant to a program of a St. Louis group called World Impact. The DOJ grant is aimed at helping World Impact to “enhance programs designed to help meet the needs of low-income, at-risk youths.” The group’s programs, however, appear to be of a proselytizing nature. The group says, on its Web site, that its aim is to “present Christ to the unchurched through all our ministries.”
* A $595,000 HUD grant to a World Impact program in Kansas. The grant is aimed at renovating the facilities of the group’s Morning Star Ranch in Florence. According to World Impact’s Web site, Morning Star Ranch is a “training center for inner-city young men ages 18-25.” The training program at the ranch is called “Christian Leadership Training,” and includes “Bible studies and devotions.” Moreover, the ranch runs children’s camps that include “relationship building, evangelism, spiritual growth, and wholesome fun.”

Americans United also identifies 16 other earmarks that appear troubling. Americans United’s letter urges the agencies to “release these grants only if you can ensure that the grant funds will be restricted to secular activities and will not be used to support religious coercion or discrimination ….”

Some of the troubling grants include:

* A $94,000 DOJ grant to Straight Ahead Ministries’ Ready4Work program. This Boston-based group says its mission is “[t]o see Jesus Christ transform the lives of juvenile offenders.”
* A $401,850 Justice Department grant to the New Song Urban Ministries, Inc., of Baltimore, Md. The grant is to fund the group’s at-risk youth services. New Song’s Web site says it embraces “a holistic approach to neighborhood development known as church-based Christian community development ….”
* A $195,000 Education Department grant to Indiana’s Grace College. The grant is for “technology upgrades.” The college describes itself as an “evangelical Christian liberal arts college,” whose “goal in Christian living and teaching is to make Christ preeminent in all things.”