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EDITORIAL: Help for desperate women

The government lifts an obstacle to faith-based assistance

Like a blind pig rooting for acorns, every now and then the Obama administration gets something right. The Agriculture Department has reversed a grievous mistake the agency made in refusing government assistance to a crisis-pregnancy center inspired by faith to do good works.

The Department of Agriculture offers a number of subsidy programs for rural communities, one of which is meant to assist rural nonprofits improve their facilities. CareNet, a charity in Windham County, Vt., that provides "counseling, pregnancy tests, education and baby supplies" to women and families in need, applied to get its share of this government money. Along with pregnancy assistance, CareNet offers a number of educational services for new parents, and even for clients coping with court orders and family custody proceedings.

It's important work that helps the community, but when Agriculture bureaucrats learned that an entirely optional Bible class was offered at the CareNet facility for those receiving assistance, they flew into an Official Government Snit.

Federal programs are by law neutral on matters of faith, and can't sanction faith-based charities as long as the charity seeking aid isn't using taxpayer-supplied funds to build a church or other house of worship. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 says the government must show equal treatment to faith-based groups. In 2011, the Agriculture Department rejected CareNet's application for a loan.

Last week, a hearing officer admitted the department made a mistake. "The Agency's Adverse Decision is erroneous because [CareNet's] equal opportunity for religious organizations, Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection claims show Agency error in its denial of [CareNet's] Program eligibility," the June 14 ruling said.

CareNet's pro-bono lawyers put the victory in context. "Government loans should not come with an unwritten 'surrender your faith' clause," says Michael Tierney, one of nearly 2,300 allied lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit that helped CareNet in the case. "This was as ridiculous as requiring homeowners to surrender their faith if they wish to apply for FHA or VA loans."

Whether the Agriculture Department ought to be making building loans is a worthy question; these benefits have little to do with raising cotton, wheat or turnip greens, worthy as those pursuits are. But as long as the government is handing out cash, it can't pick and choose which fully qualified institutions are entitled to receive the benefit, based on secular or religious belief. It's not "appropriate" that Planned Parenthood, for example, is enabled to take as much taxpayer money as it can spend while the application of a crisis-pregnancy center that regards human life as a gift, not a curse, is rejected.

When distraught, desperate and distressed women go to CareNet for help, they might well imagine they don't have a prayer. A loan to renovate the building that serves those women and their families shouldn't be denied simply because some caring person wants to share a prayer and a kind word with women in need.

The Washington Times

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