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Sued Samaritans

National | Faith-based groups offer help to needy Americans, but legal obstacles remain

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Known for its Bluebell ice cream and bluebonnet-covered fields, Brenham, Texas, has attracted attention from more than picture-taking tourists lately. That's because a local pastor three years ago joined with businessmen to form the Jobs Partnership of Washington County (JPWC), a small-scale, Christian welfare-to-work program-and because the success of that program led the state human services department to kick in a one-year, $8,000 grant.

That's chicken feed by state governmental standards, but the JPWC is far from standard. A 17-member consortium of churches and businesses, it provides a 12-week, biblically based course designed to train welfare recipients to stick to jobs. "Our goal is not to just give them a job, but to give them character. And the only thing we have found to do that is the Word of God," said partnership founder George Nelson Jr., pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church. Since its inception three years ago, 32 of the program's 40 graduates have found permanent jobs.

The state of Texas became involved because Governor George W. Bush wanted to help small, successful programs, regardless of their religious component. Washington County welfare recipients could choose from among several secular welfare-to-work classes or the faith-based one. The government did not force anyone into the Christian program. But the left-wing Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Jewish Congress brought a lawsuit last summer, noting that "Protestant evangelical Christianity is essential to the progress of JPWC and permeates the JPWC curriculum." Those organizations accused JPWC of inappropriately using government funds to "proselytize," and demanded that JPWC repay the $8,000 grant.

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The lawsuit is one of four legal challenges initiated as a preemptive strike against the new president's promise for faith-based reform. Filing lawsuits in Texas, California, Kentucky, and Wisconsin, liberal activists strategically targeted faith-based programs touted by President Bush. But on Jan. 29 U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed the JPWC lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs did not provide enough evidence that Texas officials had an intentional policy of supporting state-funded proselytizing.

Next up is a similar lawsuit filed against the Wisconsin-based FaithWorks program-a 12-step Christian recovery program for drug-addicted dads. The program puts a dent in welfare rolls by targeting inner-city fathers whose children receive public assistance.

In a federal lawsuit filed last October, the Freedom From Religion Foundation accused Wisconsin officials of illegally subsidizing a "pervasively sectarian" program. As evidence, the Foundation cited FaithWorks' "inherently Christian" bylaws and its regular hosting of Bible studies, prayer,and chapel services. The suit specifically named Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson-the new U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services-for his part in allocating $450,000 to the program through state welfare grants. The first court hearing occurs March 31.

Actions in other states are also developing. On Jan. 6, the American Jewish Congress (AJC) filed suit against California's welfare agency, the California Employment Development Department. Adopting a line from the conservative playbook, AJC accused state officials of religious "affirmative action." Even though the state already allocates millions of dollars to nonreligious programs, the lawsuit said that active solicitation of religious groups amounted to "special treatment."

Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children also faces a lawsuit, filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Christian home receives government reimbursements for state-placed children-a type of voucher-style funding upheld last June in the Supreme Court's Mitchell vs. Helms ruling. But the home attracted adverse attention in 1998 when it fired a counselor after discovering a picture of her and her lesbian lover posted at the state fair. "Having counselors who assert homosexual behavior is not, we believe, the best way to care for troubled and abused children," said the home's director, Bill Smithwick. Unintimidated state officials have renewed the home's funding despite the pending suit.

Kelly Shackelford, a lawyer representing the Texas-based Jobs Partnership program, said the issue in court challenges is "whether we are going to let religious groups offer their solutions alongside secular groups and then see who has the best results."

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