Americans United Files Lawsuit Over ‘Faith-Based’ Marriage Counseling

Americans United last month filed a lawsuit against a taxpayer-funded program in Vancouver, Wash., that provides “Bible-based” marriage education programs.

The Northwest Marriage Institute received two federal grants totalling $97,750 in 2005. A $50,000 grant came from the Compassion Capital Fund, a type of “slush fund” that the White House uses to dole out “faith-based” grants to religious organizations, and a $47,750 sub-grant from the Institute for Youth Development, a non-profit organization that has also accepted federal funding.

In court documents filed Sept. 12, Americans United charges that the Northwest Marriage Institute runs a thoroughly religious program saturated with a fundamentalist view of Christianity.

“This program trains people in how to make their marriages conform to one narrow interpretation of faith,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The federal government has no business forcing the taxpayer to subsidize that.”

Research undertaken by AU attorneys shows that the program used taxpayer money to set up a Web site rife with fundamentalist dogma. Bible passages are used to buttress its views, and the site insists that the Bible mandates that husbands run their households.

Asserts the AU complaint, “The Marriage Institute uses the federal taxpayer dollars it receives…directly for religious purposes – to create materials with explicitly religious content, to purchase supplies and equipment used in religious programming and to pay a portion of the salaries of the employees who conduct the Bible-based counseling.”

AU’s legal complaint in the Christianson v. Leavitt lawsuit also asserts that no adequate safeguards exist to prevent taxpayer funds from being used for religious purposes. The legal action requests a permanent injunction to bar future funding of the Northwest Marriage Institute and asks that the group pay back tax monies it has already received.

The marriage program is only one of many being funded around the country as part of President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative. Such programs took off after fundamentalist groups clamored for aid, insisting that they can lower the divorce rate.

Ironically, the federal government may be looking to the wrong source for help in this area. Several studies have shown that conservative Christians have a higher divorce rate than the rest of the country.

Six years ago, evangelical pollster George Barna issued a study noting the high divorce rate among his coreligionists. Barna wrote, “While it may be alarming to discover that born-again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time…. [T]he high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.”

In October of 2004, the Associated Press analyzed data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau and found that the highest divorce rates are found in the Bible Belt. The AP report stated that rates are especially high in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Caro­lina and Texas. By comparison, nine states in the Northeast were among those with the lowest divorce rates: Connecti­cut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hamp­shire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsyl­vania, Rhode Island and Vermont.