Opponents of “charitable choice” are celebrating a Wisconsin federal court ruling that halted government funds to a faith-based welfare-to-work program as a major blow to President Bush’s religion-based social initiatives.
But backers of the plan are downplaying the Jan. 7 ruling in U.S. District Court in Western Wisconsin, saying it is not a rejection of charitable choice but an “object lesson” for states regarding their contracts with religious groups.
The charitable-choice law was introduced in the 1996 federal welfare reform to encourage state governments to integrate religious groups into their social service networks. Under the law, publicly funded programs don’t have to abandon their religious character but cannot use public funds to proselytize or make religious demands on clients.
The president supports charitable choice and created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to rally “armies of compassion.”
In the late 1990s, Wisconsin officials, including Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, now Health and Human Services secretary, decided to fund Faith Works Milwaukee Inc., a residential program that helps poor men deal with and end their addictions, get education, find jobs and reconnect with their families.
Faith Works uses intense mentoring, a Christian version of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, and daily study and prayer opportunities to help its clients turn their lives around.
It received grants from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD), and other government and private sources.
The DWD grants were the largest, totaling more than $900,000, Faith Works Director Jeffrey Figgatt said this week.
In October 2000, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued state officials for violating the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of a religion.
On Jan. 7, U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled that Faith Works “indoctrinates its participants in religion, primarily through its counselors.”
The DWD funding “constitutes unrestricted, direct funding of an organization that engages in religious indoctrination” in violation of the establishment clause, she said, ordering an end to the funds.
Judge Crabb’s decision “is a major blow” to charitable-choice initiatives, said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It shows that government efforts to fund religion “are now clearly unconstitutional, as many of us have been saying all along,” he said.
Anne Gaylor and other members of Freedom From Religion Foundation praised the ruling as “the first court decision in the nation against public funding of faith-based initiatives.”
However, Stephen Lazarus of the Center for Public Justice, which supports charitable choice, said the ruling did not challenge the constitutionality of charitable choice or the White House’s initiative.
“The judge admits that explicitly in the decision,” he said.
Instead, Judge Crabb’s opinion is “a warning to the states” to be more careful about how they implement charitable choice. “She acknowledges that there’s no problem for [charitable choice] if the government does this the right way,” Mr. Lazarus added.
“This is an object lesson about what we need to pay attention to,” concurred Jay Hein of the Hudson Institute, which is preparing a detailed report on how 15 states are contracting with religious groups.
Mr. Figgatt said an appeal of the court decision was being considered.