Bush-backed Addiction Programs Promote Religion, Shouldn't Get Public Funds, Says Au

Teen Challenge, Louisiana Church Program Proselytize Clients On Behalf Of Evangelical Christianity

 The "faith-based" addiction programs promoted by President George W. Bush this week proselytize on behalf of evangelical Christianity and should not get public funds, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

 "Taxpayers should never be forced to pay for religious conversions," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "The president is trying to blast a huge hole in the wall of separation between church and state.

"When people with addiction problems seek government help, they should receive medical treatment and support services, not sermons and scriptures," Lynn observed. "The Bush plan would entangle government with religion and jeopardize the health care needs of Americans struggling with alcohol and drug problems.

"In America, houses of worship are perfectly free to evangelize," Lynn concluded, "but they should do so with their own funds, not money from the taxpayer."

 In his State of the Union message Jan. 28, Bush asked Congress to approve $600 million over three years to subsidize religiously affiliated and other treatment programs aimed at drug and alcohol addiction.

  Bush did not go into specifics in his speech, but White House aides told the news media that a voucher scheme would be arranged that allows public funds to go to faith-based programs. The president highlighted the role of religious agencies by inviting two representatives of such groups to sit with First Lady Laura Bush during the speech.

 The two guests were Tonja Myles of the "Set Free Indeed Program" at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., and Henry Lozano of Teen Challenge California, a group based in Los Angeles.

 Myles runs her program with backing from her evangelical Christian congregation. The church website says the program helps those who are struggling with addiction to "become free through the Power of God." It adds, "We believe that recovery begins at the Cross. We rely solely on the foundation of the Word of God to break the bands of addiction."

 Bush praised the "Set Free Indeed" program for its "amazing work" and quoted a participant in the program as saying, "God does miracles in people's lives, and you never think it could be you."

 The president did not mention the other guest in the gallery Lozano of Teen Challenge but that group has been a favorite of Bush for many years. It, too, bases its addiction treatment on Christian religious indoctrination. Teen Challenge representative John Castellani testified in Congress in May 2001 that the group hires only Christians and bases its counseling on religion.

 Castellani said Teen Challenge takes clients from different religious traditions and some of them become Christians during the course of the program. He noted, for example, that some Jews who participate become "completed Jews," an evangelical Christian term for a Jewish person who converts to Christianity.

 The comment drew strong criticism from many Jewish and civil liberties organizations who object to the idea of public funding for treatment programs that discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and proselytize on behalf of their faith.

 Teen Challenge has been marked by controversy in other ways as well. In May 2001, a minister and his wife who ran a Teen Challenge affiliate in Hawaii were indicted on five counts of theft involving welfare benefits. The pair was accused of obtaining food stamps fraudulently and forcing teens to turn over welfare benefits to them. They later each pleaded no contest to one count of theft and agreed to refund $49,000 in welfare benefits.

 Americans United's Lynn said the Bush proposal is certain to spark sharp controversy when it appears in Congress.

 "Members of Congress need to take a close look at the Bush scheme," said Lynn. "This proposal has disaster written all over it."

 Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.  Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.