Court halts funding of faith-based program

Wis. addiction initiative was highlighted by Bush

January 10, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a case widely seen as the first legal challenge to the constitutionality of President Bush's "faith-based initiative," a federal district court has ordered Wisconsin to stop giving money to a drug and alcohol addiction program that relied heavily on Christian spirituality in its approach to treatment.

The Faith Works program, in a former convent in Milwaukee, was praised by George W. Bush when he visited the city on a campaign stop in 2000 as the kind of religion-based program he would like to promote as president.

Faith Works has received nearly $1 million from Wisconsin, much of it during the tenure of former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, now in Bush's Cabinet as secretary of health and human services.

In a decision made public late Tuesday, Judge Barbara B. Crabb of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that giving "unrestricted, direct state funding" to Faith Works amounted to government-sponsored religious coercion.

"I conclude that the Faith Works program indoctrinates its participants in religion, primarily through its counselors," the judge wrote in her 68-page decision. "Religion is so integral to the Faith Works program that it is not possible to isolate it from the program as a whole."

Faith Works had contended that the government grants had been used only for the nonreligious aspects of the program, and that counselors spent no more than 20 percent of their time discussing spirituality with the clients.

The case was brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis. Crabb wrote that her decision applied only to Faith Works and was not intended to challenge the constitutionality of charitable choice, the 1996 federal statute that loosened the restrictions on government financing of religious programs.

Scholars said the decision was important because it was the first since charitable choice was passed to declare it unconstitutional for government money to be used for programs based on overtly religious practices.

"I think this decision is a warning sign that we need to have clearer guidelines about government aid to religious groups," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

In one sign of White House interest in the case, Attorney General John Ashcroft filed an amicus brief on behalf of the defendants. Still, Susan Dryden, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said yesterday that the case "reaffirms the importance of providing protections to make sure that federal funds aren't used for religious or proselytizing purposes."

Faith Works was modeled on a New York City shelter program for homeless heroin addicts, the Bowery Mission Transitional Center, which despite its evangelical philosophy received more than $1 million in government grants.

The founding statement of Faith Works described it as a "ministry" employing a 12-step approach similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but more explicitly Christian.

Faith Works opened in 1999 with two grants totaling $600,000 from the state's Workforce and Corrections departments. About two-thirds of its money comes from government financing, which now totals $880,000.

The Workforce Department said the government was considering an appeal but might also look for ways to change the program to conform with the judge's order.

"I am fully supportive of the program," Gov. Scott McCallum said at a news conference yesterday. "I will go to bat on this one."

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