Since taking office the Bush administration has successfully lobbied Congress to budget $500 million for marriage education programs. Much of this money is slated to go to religious organizations, despite the fact that the First Amendment mandates separation of church and state. A recent lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) against the Department of Health and Human Services aims to force the Bush administration to cease violating the Constitution by funding marriage programs with an overtly religious slant. If successful, this lawsuit would have a profound impact on the ability of the Bush administration to continue funding religious organizations with taxpayer dollars.
The target of the AU lawsuit is the Northwest Marriage Institute, a Washington State organization that provides “Bible-based” marriage education and counseling services. In 2005, the Department of Health and Human Services distributed almost $100,000 to the institute. The organization describes itself as providing “faith-based education in marriage” as well as “faith-based premarital and marriage counseling.” And the organization’s goal is to “promote successful biblical principles for everyday life.” Obviously, this is a Christian organization that espouses a very specific religious viewpoint. All of which begs the question, why does it receive taxpayer dollars?
Only a month after taking office in 2001 President Bush promoted the idea of channeling taxpayer funds to faith-based organizations (FBOs). He even created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to oversee the process. In theory, FBOs provide welfare and community services without proselytizing. Under the rules of how they are required to operate, FBOs must hold religious activities at separate times or in separate locations from the community services they provide, and they must be voluntary.
But a report released this summer by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative office of Congress, found that many FBOs are failing to operate according to the requirements. The report noted that FBOs don’t always explain to participants that they have a right not to participate in religious activities. And FBOs “did not separate some religious activities from federally funded program services.” While the White House is supposedly monitoring FBOs for compliance, the report complained that the Bush administration wasn’t obtaining enough information from FBOs to know whether or not they were complying with the requirements.
The federal funding of the Northwest Marriage Institute glaringly indicates just how recklessly the Bush administration has been willing to use taxpayer dollars. The institute doesn’t even attempt to disguise itself as offering marital counseling and education programs that are apart from its religious objectives. To the contrary, they’re one and the same. According to the institute, a majority of the residents of Washington do not attend church; therefore, “the great need was to take biblical marriage education and biblical counseling to the communities.”
The institute is attempting to do this in part by offering something called “temperament therapy,” which consists of “discovering the way God made you.” This reportedly helps couples improve their marriage. The organization offers pre-marital and marriage-counseling programs that contain sessions entitled, “God’s Plan for a Healthy Marriage.” In the programs, couples “discover tools, embedded in God’s Word, that can be used in real life to resolve real life problems.” This may or may not be true. But what is most certainly true is that American taxpayers shouldn’t be promoting it.
The Northwest Marriage Institute is an evangelical Christian organization, and much of its counseling programs appear to be directed at women. According to the institute’s literature, women are encouraged to follow the example of the New Testament and influence their husbands by remaining quiet. Women are instructed to remember, “the Bible says that the husband is the head of the wife.” And the counseling programs advise women that, “the Bible says that the wife should submit to the husband.”
Conservative groups will no doubt accuse Americans United of attacking Christianity by filing this lawsuit. But the lawsuit was actually filed on behalf of 13 residents of Washington. A number of these individuals have identified themselves as Presbyterian, Protestant, Unitarian, and Baptist. These residents obviously aren’t anti-Christian, or even anti-religion. They’re simply pro-Constitution.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution stipulates, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By funding the Northwest Marriage Institute, and other faith-based organizations, the Bush administration is violating the law. But this should come as no surprise, given the willingness of the administration in the last five years to skirt and ignore the Constitution. If successful, this lawsuit will force the Bush administration to uphold one of our core values, something it’s clearly unwilling to do on its own.
Gene C. Gerard
has taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at several
colleges in the Southwest, and is a contributing author to the
forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press. He
writes a blog for the world news web site OrbStandard at:
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