WASHINGTON (ABP) — A Wisconsin group that opposes government endorsement of religion has launched the broadest legal attack to date on President Bush's plan to fund social services through religious charities.
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed an eight-page complaint in federal court June 17. The suit names as defendants Jim Towey, director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and the agency heads and directors of faith-based offices in nine other executive-branch agencies.
The suit claims Towey and the other administration officials violated the First Amendment's ban on government endorsement of religion “by using federal taxpayer appropriations to support activities that endorse religion and give faith-based organizations preferred positions as political insiders.” The complaint cited the dozens of conferences the agencies have hosted around the country for faith-based social-service providers.
It also claims the agencies showed favoritism toward religion by providing “capacity-building” assistance to churches and other religious groups to enable them to better compete with secular groups for government grants. And it said the guidelines the administration provides to religious service providers — that they may not use government funds for “inherently religious” activities — are insufficient to prevent public funds from subsidizing ostensibly “secular” services that are nonetheless infused with religion.
Towey responded to the charges June 23 by saying the administration is reaching out to all small and effective social-service providers, not simply religious ones.
“We provide technical assistance to all groups — faith-based groups, secular organizations, governmental agencies,” he told Associated Baptist Press. “We are reaching out to these groups that have effective programs, … but the idea that we are favoring faith-based organizations is not accurate.”
Towey said the assistance the faith-based offices provide and the conferences they sponsor are open to both religious and secular social-service providers that need assistance in understanding the process for receiving government grants. “If you look at the mixture of government agencies, secular not-for-profits, and other agencies … it's completely inclusive of all organizations,” he said.
Towey also refuted the suit's charges that faith-based groups are receiving favorable treatment in money granted. “This is a lawsuit that's been cooked up by people who haven't come to our conferences, haven't read the White House materials, and by people who ignore the fact that 92 cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to secular and governmental organizations, not faith-based organizations,” he said.. “So, if we're favoring faith-based groups, then we're doing a pretty poor job of it.”
An expert who studies legal issues surrounding the faith-based plan said the lawsuit has problems but does have a chance to gain some traction in the courts. “I don't think it's the strongest argument, but it does have some coherence,” said George Washington University Law School professor Bob Tuttle. Tuttle and his colleague, Ira Lupu, track the faith-based initiative's legal developments as consultants to the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.
Tuttle noted that previous lawsuits involving the faith-based plan have addressed purported constitutional violations by specific government-funded programs. But, he said, if the federal court allows the case to proceed, attorneys for the Wisconsin group would have to look for grant-money statistics and specific government communications to faith-based service providers to establish a general pattern of favoritism.
“If they really want to talk about misuse of money for religion, they've got a little bit of work cut out,” Tuttle told ABP.
— EDITOR'S NOTE: This article updates one issued June 25.