ATLANTA (ABP) — A closely watched case regarding government funding for “faith-based” social-service organizations has ended in a settlement that critics of the practice are counting as a victory.
The State of Georgia and the United Methodist Children's Home in Decatur, Ga., have reached separate agreements with plaintiffs in a case involving two contentious issues — how public funds are spent at religious social-service providers and whether those providers are exempt from employment discrimination laws.
The latest settlement, announced Nov. 5, prevents the children's home from discriminating against employees or clients on the basis of religion or sexual orientation. It also prevents the children's home from attempting to steer clients who express questions about their own sexual orientation toward religious programs or other therapy designed to “convert” them into heterosexuals.
An earlier settlement required any organizations — including religious ones — contracting with the state Department of Human Resources to clearly separate any religious activities from secular, state-funded activities in the programs.
Lambda Legal, a gay-rights organization, filed the suit on behalf of two Georgia taxpayers, Aimee Bellmore and Alan Yorker. Bellmore was a youth counselor at the home who was fired when administrators discovered she was a lesbian. Yorker, a psychotherapist, was interviewing for a job at the home when his interviewer cut the session short upon discovering that Yorker is Jewish.
Both the employment-discrimination issue and the issue of providing taxpayer funding directly to churches and other pervasively religious organizations have been flashpoints in the controversy over President Bush's plan to provide government funding to religious service providers. The plan is commonly referred to as Bush's “faith-based initiative.”
Although many social conservatives have long supported the idea — which first was authorized in 1996 for a few federal welfare programs — many who support strict separation of church and state oppose the idea as a violation of the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.
Greg Nevins, Lambda Legal's senior staff attorney, said the lawsuit was both a legal victory for his clients and good for public education on the issue. “I think in the sense that this forms a baseline — if an organization is motivated by faith and they are going to take money from the government, they can't take that money and discriminate in regards either to whom they provide the services or whom they hire,” he said.
Derrick Dickey, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) said the settlement means that “all Department of Human Resources contracts will provide that the faith-based organization has a clear division between its religious and secular activities, and that also in the hiring practices that there will be a distinction in the activities between the religious hiring and the secular hiring.”
But Dickey said the settlement doesn't change the governor's view “that direct funding of secular activities of faith-based organizations is permissible under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”