Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that seeks to block taxpayer funding of a Vancouver, Wash., program that offers "Bible-based" marriage education.
The Northwest Marriage Institute, a fundamentalist Christian organization, received two federal grants worth $97,750 in 2005. A $50,000 Compassion Capital Fund grant came from HHS and a $47,750 sub-grant came from the Institute for Youth Development, an intermediary organization that distributes "faith-based" funds for HHS.
The lawsuit against HHS, the Institute for Youth Development and the Northwest Marriage Institute has important national implications because the Bush administration is promoting massive federal funding for marriage programs.
Congress has budgeted $500 million for marriage improvement programs over the next five years, and Religious Right activists are pushing to have most of the money allocated to conservative churches and other faith-based groups.
In court documents filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Americans United charges that funding of religious instruction violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
"This program trains people in how to make their marriages conform to one narrow interpretation of faith," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The federal government has no business forcing the taxpayer to subsidize that.
"The Bush administration must not be allowed to join church and state in unholy matrimony," Lynn concluded.
The Northwest Marriage Institute runs a thoroughly religious program saturated with a fundamentalist view of Christianity. AU asserts that the group has used taxpayer funds to further its religious perspective.
According to the AU complaint, the Institute in its mission statement says it exists to provide "Bible education in marriage and related subjects, and to provide professional, Bible-based pre-marital and marriage counseling." The organization works to preserve "Christian marriages" by "promot[ing] successful biblical principles for everyday life."
Claiming that approximately 65 percent of the residents of Washington and Oregon are "unchurched," the Institute explains that "the great need, then, was to take biblical marriage education and biblical marriage counseling to the communities."
Research undertaken by Americans United shows that the program used taxpayer money to set up a Web site that reflects fundamentalist dogma. For example, a quiz on the site asks what is meant when "the Bible says that the 'husband is head of the wife'" and when "the Bible says that the wife should submit to the husband."
The program cites biblical passages to support its views, in one case asserting that a section of the Book of Peter means that women should win over their husbands with a quiet spirit. Even the group's logo an ambulance with a red cross and the words "Every Marriage Saved!" conveys a religious concept.
The Americans United legal challenge could have far-reaching effects. A court decision affirming church-state separation could serve as strong precedent to block funding of religious organizations that might use federal faith-based funds to promote specific sectarian views about marriage and other topics.
The suit is being filed on behalf of 13 residents and taxpayers of Washington state, among them a Unitarian-Universalist minister. Other plaintiffs identify themselves as Presbyterian, Buddhist, Baptist, Protestant and Secular Humanist.
The Christianson v. Leavitt lawsuit asserts that no adequate safeguards exist to prevent taxpayer funds from being used for religious purposes. The lawsuit requests a permanent injunction to bar future funding of the Northwest Marriage Institute and asks that the group pay back monies it has already received.
Assisting AU in the legal complaint are lawyers in Arnold & Porter LLP's Los Angeles office and The Phillips Law Group in Seattle.
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.