Federal judge strikes down Montana 'faith-based' program

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- A federal judge has struck down state funding of a "parish nurse" program in Montana, saying the program violated the Constitution.

Judge Richard Anderson of the United States District Court for Montana ruled Oct. 26 that the director of the Montana Office of Rural Health violated the First Amendment's ban on government support for religion by funding the program, run by a Catholic college.

In addition, Anderson ruled that MORH's provision of logistical support to a statewide organization dedicated to promoting faith-based health care was impermissible. The MORH office -- on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman -- also houses the Montana Faith-Health Cooperative, provides it with clerical support, and administers the group's website.

Anderson said David Young, MORH's executive director, showed a clear intent to promote religion by favoring parish nursing programs -- and specifically a program at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. -- with federal grant funds.

Young provided part of a $614,000, three-year grant from the federal Compassion Capital Fund to the program. That fund was created, as part of President Bush's so-called "faith-based initiative, to give grants to small religious and other small community-based organizations to build their capacity to provide social services.

In providing the grants to the parish nursing programs without putting them through the same bidding process as other grantees, Anderson wrote, "Young acted with the clear primary purpose of promoting and endorsing the use and application of Judeo-Christian principles in the provision of otherwise secular health care, thereby furthering his own personal belief in the benefits of such principles."

Young, Anderson noted, has written extensively about the connections between good health and religious faith.

State officials argued that the grants violated neither the Constitution nor federal regulations, because the grants were intended to provide secular nursing services. However, Anderson said it is often impossible for parish nurses to separate their secular from their religious services. Nurses in the Carroll College program sometimes provided communion, prayer or other spiritual services to their clients in addition to nursing.

"Parish nursing is inherently and pervasively religious; it is simply not possible to separate out its secular purpose of providing nursing care from its sectarian purpose of providing parish nursing care, steeped in concepts of Judeo-Christian theology," the judge wrote.

Anderson also said the services that MORH provided to the Montana Faith-Health Cooperative violated the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.

By housing the Montana Faith-Health Cooperative -- co-founded by MORH and the Montana Association of Churches -- Anderson said, "Young and the MORH have clearly conveyed that the state endorses the faith-health connection promoted by the MFHC. This blatant public endorsement and preference of faith and religion over non-faith and irreligion runs afoul of the stablishment clause."

The lawsuit was brought by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. That group has sought legal challenges against several such faith-based programs around the country, with some success.

A representative for MORH directed a Nov. 1 press inquiry on the case to Leslie Taylor, the Montana State University attorney who defended the group. In a brief telephone interview, Taylor said that university officials had not yet decided whether to appeal Anderson's ruling. She declined to comment further on the judge's opinion, saying simply, "I think it speaks for itself."