Battling Bias

Americans United Challenges ‘Faith-Based’ Job Discrimination At Federally Funded Program In Pennsylvania

A job recently became available for someone willing and able to teach construction skills to inmates at the Bradford County Correc\xadtional Facility in northeastern Pennsyl\xadvania.

Applicants had to be general contractors familiar with the ins and outs of the building trade, such as estimating jobs and procuring supplies; they also had to be capable of supervising a crew of up to 10 men.

There was one more requirement: Anyone interested in the job had to be a Christian willing to share his or her faith if the opportunity to save a soul arose. Leading workers in prayer would also be an important part of the job.

How did a religious requirement like that get affixed to a job funded with taxpayer dollars?

Blame it on President George W. Bush.

Since Bush unveiled his “faith-based” initiative shortly after taking office in 2001, federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, have been prodded to dole out tax funds to religious organizations. A variety of social-service programs, including programs aimed at substance abusers, young people, elderly Americans and prison inmates and others in need of government aid have been especially targeted.

In Bradford County, a rural enclave with a population of about 62,000, the new faith-based approach translated into a contract diverting a combination of local, state and federal funds to an evangelical Christian group called The Firm Foundation to run vocational programs at the local jail. No other programs are offered. If you’re an inmate and want to learn a marketable skill to turn your life around after release, Firm Foundation is the only game in town.

A group of local residents who support church-state separation and oppose the faith-based initiative were alarmed by the arrangement as soon as it was announced. Working through the Brad\xadford County Alliance for Democracy (BCAD), a regional civic group, the residents decided on a proactive approach.

At first, the opponents discovered that the program was rife with financial mismanagement. The church-state violations were uncovered later.

“We very rapidly found a number of First Amendment violations,” said Clark Moeller, a driving force behind the BCAD and a longtime activist in the community. “At each step of the way, we tried to alert the commissioners and asked them to correct the problems. They would not.”

BCAD member Jeffrey Gonzalez suggested contacting Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU attorneys looked into the matter and decided the infraction was serious enough to warrant litigation. In February, AU joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and took action, filing a legal challenge in federal court.

The Moeller v. Bradford County lawsuit is believed to be one of the first to challenge federally funded religious discrimination in a faith-based program. Attorneys at Americans United say that feature makes the program especially vulnerable and gives the case national importance. Federal courts, they point out, have been reluctant to approve discrimination in government-funded programs.

Defendants include The Firm Foundation, local government officials and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is named in the case since some of Firm Foundation’s funding came from a Department of Justice program.

“Ministries have a right to spread their religious message, but they have no right to pass the collection plate to taxpayers,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, the day the lawsuit was filed. “Programs with a ‘Christians-only’ hiring policy should not be eligible for public funds.”

The legal action also targets religious activity in the Firm Foundation program.

The sectarian nature of the organization is not under dispute. Firm Founda\xadtion doesn’t try to hide its religious agenda. In fact, it proclaims it openly.

The job opening, for example, states in the first paragraph that the site manager hired “will be a [sic] example of a believer in Christ and Christian Life today, sharing these ideals when opportunity arises.” It goes on to say, “Each day will start with a short prayer.”

The Firm Foundation is a project of New Life Church, a charismatic congregation in nearby Canton. The organization’s belief statement reads, “This program is based on the belief that lives are changed as hearts become open to Faith. The ad\xadmin\xadistration, trainers, and staff have committed their lives to this belief and are examples of Jesus Christ the Lord.”

A Firm Foundation official put it succinctly, remarking, “We see ourselves as missionaries and live accordingly.”

Program staff members distribute Bibles and other religious literature to participants. Much of this material comes from Prison Fellowship, a large evangelical prison ministry run by ex-Watergate figure Charles Colson. As AU’s complaint notes, Firm Foundation also relies on Prison Fellowship for “mentors and training of mentors for the Firm Founda\xadtion program.”

In Firm Foundation’s October 2004 newsletter, Restored, the group’s director, Richard Friend, writes that he came to the organization after praying “for years to be used by God in ministry.” He goes on to say that he woke up the morning of July 14, 2004, “knowing that I had been called to Firm Foundation.”

Later, Firm Foundation President Wayne Blow and Friend met with a spiritual adviser, who provided “prophetic confirmation” that the director was to join the ministry. (Despite the prophetic nod, Friend later left the organization.)

The newsletter lays out the religious mission of Firm Foundation, stating, “As the men interact over the course of the day, and as the vocational skills are passed along and the satisfaction of a job well-done is earned, someone else is present there with them. His is an unseen presence, manifested through the trainers. That someone is Jesus Christ.”

Friend told National Public Radio Feb. 18, “We were the only group in Bradford County providing a service like this. And the reason that we do it is because we believe we can change lives through faith in Jesus Christ.”

One former inmate who joined the program, Tim Thurston, confirmed the religious nature of Firm Foundation. Thurston joined because he hoped to learn construction skills but quit the program after being pressured to become “born again.”

The final straw, Thurston said, came when a staff member from the Elmira, N.Y., Police Department arrived to address program participants. The staffer asked each inmate if he wanted to be born again, and when Thurston declined, the man began praying aloud, beseeching God to change Thurston’s mind.

Moeller and other Bradford County residents followed the progress of the plan after it was implemented in the county in March of 2003. They were concerned that taxpayer money was being handed over to Firm Foundation without meaningful government oversight.

That concern was shared by David Lynch, a former associate of Firm Foundation President Blow. Lynch told the Pitt News in March, “It was absolutely a mess. Very disorganized, no budget. The concept was good, but what Wayne was proposing was completely pie in the sky and not based on reality at all.”

BCAD members looked into the finances, but they were also aware that, given the religious nature of Firm Foundation, church-state problems might be present.

The BCAD had investigated church-state problems in the county before. In the late ’90s, the groups challenged efforts to bring proselytizing evangelists into local public schools.

To make the case this time, Moeller and BCAD member Laura Blain undertook an in-depth investigation of the program. The result was a 32-page report with two appendices and a list of recommendations. In June of 2004, the report was presented to the Bradford County commissioners.

A letter dated June 11 underscores the church-state problems, noting that a contract signed between Firm Foun\xaddation and the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commis\xadsion, a local governing body that administered some of the grants, specifically banned religious discrimination in hiring and spending tax funds on religious activities.

“From our investigation, it appears that [Firm Foundation] has violated United States law and the grant conditions by engaging in evangelical proselytizing during the program, religious discriminatory hiring practices, and using government tax monies to work on a building owned by a religious institution,” observed the BCAD letter.

Not only did the commissioners not respond to the letter and report, one month later they approved an additional grant of $64,562 for Firm Foundation. To date, the county has awarded Firm Foundation $335,000 in tax funds.

Americans United, which has strongly opposed the Bush “faith-based” initiative since the plan was introduced, believes the Bradford County case could prove important in derailing the administration’s plan to allow religious discrimination in hiring with taxpayer funds.

Since the modern civil-rights movement of the 1960s, federally funded programs have banned discrimination in hiring on the basis or race, sex and religion. Now those rules are being rewritten. In December of 2002, Bush issued an executive order stating that religious groups that take federal funds through contracts may restrict hiring to members of their own faith.

Administration officials and their allies in the Religious Right tried to portray the change as no big deal. The principle of religious freedom, they argued, gives houses of worship the right to hire only members of their own faith.

Americans United and other initiative opponents countered that religious groups retain the right to restrict hiring in privately funded programs. When providing what are supposed to be secular services to a wide range of people with taxpayer funds, AU argued, there simply is no need for these groups to engage in religious discrimination.

But Bush and his supporters are determined to press ahead. The Justice Department has created an entire unit of lawyers who do nothing but prowl the nation, looking for church-state cases to intervene in. Some of these are challenges to faith-based funding. In New York, the Justice Department team is helping the Salvation Army, which is under assault in the courts for imposing religious qualifications on employees, even though much of its budget comes from the state.

Professional social workers have an additional concern. They point out that the issue means more than who gets to work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They note that under the faith-based initiative, many services that are currently provided by trained social workers, such as substance-abuse treatment, care of the elderly and mental-health counseling, could be turned over to untrained religious providers whose main goal is to win converts.

The National Association of Social Workers and the American Counseling Association have worked with Ameri\xadcans United and other groups to oppose aspects of the faith-based initiative.

After Bush issued the executive order permitting hiring discrimination in programs provided by religious groups, Dr. Elizabeth Clark, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, met with White House “Faith Czar” James Towey at the White House to express her organization’s concerns.

According to an NASW press re\xadlease, Clark “stressed the importance of having a professionally trained mental health workforce; providing accountability; supporting equal access to services; guaranteeing separation of church and state; and maintaining government responsibility within any faith-based initiative.”

AU also notes that efforts to award tax funds to faith-based groups that discriminate on the basis of religion continue to surface in congressional legislation.

As the Bradford County case was being filed, for example, the House of Representatives was debating a Job Training Improvement Act of 2005 reauthorization. The bill contains language repealing current provisions that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on religion, even though such restrictions have been in the act since 1982 and were approved by President Ronald Reagan.

On March 2, the House passed the measure on a largely party-line vote of 224-200, rejecting efforts by a group of House Democrats to remove the discriminatory language. (See “Faith-Based Favoritism,” page 11, for more information.)

The new AU legal initiative, therefore, isn’t designed to simply put a stop to an offensive practice in a rural area in one state. If successful, it could set a strong precedent and help block future efforts by Religious Right conservatives in Congress to run roughshod over the nation’s civil-rights laws.

Moeller has even more ambitious goals. He’d like to see the litigation play a role in striking down the entire faith-based initiative.

“If this was only about a few people here mismanaging money, it would not be worth it,” Moeller said. “For my money, the larger issue that matters most is how we cut this faith-based initiative off at the knees. I see it as one of the most insidious things going on in the country.”