- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Two court cases, one decided in Wisconsin and one initiated in Georgia, this week became the front lines in the legal battle over religious social-service groups accepting government funding.

On Monday, a federal court in Milwaukee ruled that Faith Works, a Christian-founded drug-rehabilitaton program, could receive state funds to help addicts who voluntarily signed up without violating the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion.

And on Thursday, homosexual rights groups sued the United Methodist Childrens Home in Decatur, Ga., to test whether the state-aided Christian group can fire a youth worker who is a lesbian or deny a Jewish counselor a job.

The Milwaukee and Decatur cases represent a central issue in the legal debate over President Bushs faith-based policy initiative: Can a welfare ministry keep its religious identity and discriminate in hiring?

"We believe we are entitled to determine our hiring by legal exemption," said the Rev. Richard Puckett, spokesman for the childrens home, which houses 59 youths, ages 6-18, on a 100-acre site and provides counseling to thousands more.

The homes employment guidelines said a worker "must be a professing Christian" to "preserve our identity" as a church-based foster home founded in 1871.

The state of Georgia contracts all foster-care work with private organizations. The lawsuit clams that 40 percent of the church homes budget comes from state funds.

"I havent seen the lawsuit, so I cant comment on policy," Mr. Puckett said. "But, yes, we are right in the middle of a whole lot of these issues for our church and for society."

While the Milwaukee ruling on Faith Works helps protect the religious identity of a social service receiving government funds, the United Methodist home case could become a national test on hiring practices.

The complaint, filed by Aimee Bellmore, the fired lesbian employee, and youth counselor Alan Yorker, who is Jewish, is litigated by Lambda Legal, the top homosexual legal-action group.

"Citizens of Georgia do not expect their tax dollars to be used to fund religious discrimination," Lambda lawyer Susan Sommer said in a statement released the day of the filing at Superior Court of Fulton County, Ga.

"Concern for the needs of lesbian and gay foster care youth is a driving force behind this lawsuit," she added. The group portrayed the legal battle as "the latest chapter" in confronting the administrations faith-based initiative, which lets private religious groups provide some government services.

The Civil Rights Act of 1965 exempted religious groups from having to hire people of a different religion or who behave in ways offensive to that religion. The charitable choice law of 1996, which said ministries may bid for welfare grants without diluting their religious identity, cites the Civil Rights Act.

But new homosexual rights laws in states and cities have clashed with the federal exemption, and the hiring rights of religious groups who provide state-funded welfare is yet to be tested in the federal courts.

In Milwaukee, Faith Works was sued by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., an atheist group, over state funding of the Christian-based drug rehabilitation ministry.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb, who was appointed by President Carter, ruled in the ministrys favor, saying the states paying for services given to voluntary clients was not an establishment of religion.

She also cited the Supreme Court ruling last month that said Clevelands school-choice voucher system was not an establishment of religion because parents choose where to spend the money.

Jeff Figgatt, executive director of Faith Works, said it operates on a similar principle, except under a mechanism where the state pays the ministry per client served rather than issuing a client voucher.

"Our program is entirely voluntary, and the money follows the client rather than being given in a block grant," Mr. Figgatt said.

He said the ministry attracts Christian workers and the employee handbook describes a Christian mission. "Just as a practical matter, our program works if we have people of a like-minded faith because there is a lot of burnout working with these problems," he said.

But he added that he does not care about the sexual orientation of a counselor willing to do the tough work of drug rehabilitation. "Our case did not relate to the anti-discrimination issues," Mr. Figgatt said.

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