Egregious Earmarks?

Americans United Says Congressional Aid To Religious Groups Is Tone-Deaf To The Commands Of The Constitution

Have you made a donation recently to Teen Challenge, a fundamentalist Christian organization that promises to help young people overcome substance abuse through “the life-changing message of salvation through Jesus Christ”?

You may think you didn’t – but actually you did, thanks to the U.S. Congress. Recently, federal lawmakers allocated $587,514 for branches of Teen Challenge in four states. This money from the public purse is scheduled to be handed over to Teen Challenge even though the group is upfront about its sectarian mission.

In Minnesota, for example, Teen Challenge is slated to receive a $235,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department to assist public schools with drug and alcohol prevention programs. The earmark was awarded despite language on the organization’s Web site listing its objective as “assist[ing] teens and adults in gaining freedom from chemical addiction by applying biblical principles and establishing a chemical free lifestyle, enhancing social skills, improving work habits, building supportive relationships, and growing in personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Teen Challenge is by no means the only religious organization to reap a windfall from the taxpayers. A recent investigation by attorneys with Americans United uncovered a laundry list of questionable allocations to organizations that seem to have clear religious objectives.

Taxpayer money is flowing to these groups through a process called “earmarking.” It’s a more polite term for what used to be called “pork barrel” politics.

Under the earmarking process, lawmakers slip allocations of money targeted to specific programs or organizations into larger bills, often enormous measures appropriating money for huge federal agencies. Usually the allocation, which is often a modest amount by federal standards, attracts little attention and is simply allowed to go along for the ride in the larger interest of passing the bill.

The practice has been going on for years. Recently, however, earmarks have been attracting heightened scrutiny. Critics have scored the practice, saying it is wasteful and leads to questionable uses of taxpayer money. Members of Congress have been criticized for using earmarks to curry favor with certain voting blocs or for forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden for local projects.

Last year, for example, controversy erupted over a plan by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton to allocate $1 million for a museum commemorating the Woodstock music festival in 1969. The New York Democrats had inserted the money into a funding bill for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. They pulled the money for the homestate project after other senators complained, some deriding it as funding for a “hippie museum.”

Tax funding for a museum commemorating a ’60s music festival was an easy target. But many earmarks never attract such attention. And in the case of earmarks to religious groups, there can be little impetus for a complaint, since most lawmakers seek to curry favor with religious groups.

Americans United has decided that the issue warrants a closer look. Over the years, AU staff members have caught wind of some questionable earmarks. In 2007, for example, Americans United was able to successfully block an earmark put forth by Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

Vitter wanted to direct $100,000 to a Louisiana group that promotes “creation science.” Supposedly, the organization was going to use the money to improve science education in Louisiana’s public schools. The allocation was slipped into a larger bill allocating funding for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education and happened to come to the attention of a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After Americans United and its allies protested the earmark, Vitter agreed to direct the money elsewhere.

But most of the time, controversial earmarks do not come to the public’s attention. Americans United is trying to change that.

In late February, Americans United sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and three other cabinet-level officials challenging 26 questionable earmarks to religious organizations. The 10-page letter goes into considerable detail, explaining why these earmarks are problematic. It asks the federal officials to impound some of this funding and to ensure that the remainder comports with the commands of the U.S. Constitution.

The letter identifies a number of earmarks funneled through the Justice Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education. Some of the controversial earmarks challenged include:

• A grant of $282,000 to the World Impact Youth Program in St. Louis. The money is supposed to help low-income, at-risk youths. AU notes that on its Web site, World Impact describes itself as “a Christian missions organization seeking to reach the unchurched urban poor in the inner cities of America” and asserts that its purpose is to “present Christ to the unchurched through all of our ministries” and “nurture people to maturity in Christ.”

• Camp Barnabas, a summer camp in Purdy, Mo. for disabled children, is scheduled to receive $375,000, even though its Web site proclaims that all volunteers working there should be “ready to help us spread the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all campers that come through our gates.” Potential campers are asked to explain “how and when did you come to know Christ and how would you describe your walk with the Lord?”

• In Florence, Kan., Morning Star Ranch is on track to receive $595,000 to renovate its facilities. The ranch offers a Christian leadership training program that includes Bible studies and devotions. It also operates camps for children, the goals of which are described as “relationship building, evangelism, spiritual growth and wholesome fun.” The ranch’s operators say its facilities are “made available to all followers of Christ.”

• St. Richard Parish in Chicago is to receive a grant of a quarter of a million for “construction, renovation and buildout of a new community center.”

• Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., is scheduled to receive two federal grants – one for the training of emergency workers and one for “technology upgrades.” The college’s Web site describes it as an “evangelical Christian liberal arts college” whose “goal in Christian living and teaching is to make Christ preeminent in all things.” Applicants are asked to name their church and pastor and “describe your relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” Students are required to attend chapel services on Sundays.

• Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries is slated to receive $490,000 for its Wildwood Ranch Youth Program, a five-day summer camping event. The organization’s Web site describes the camp as a “Christian summer camping experience” and says the Rescue Mission is “committed to sharing the gospel of the love of Jesus Christ, providing hope to the hopeless, disadvantaged, abused and homeless men, women and children….by ministering to the total person – body, soul and spirit – we help them become faithful Christians, disciplined into a local church, rehabilitated, employed and living productive lives in restored families.”

Americans United’s Feb. 25 letter to the federal officials notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that public funds may not be used for religious activities such as worship and indoctrination. Nor may public funds be given to groups that discriminate on the basis of religion among benefit recipients.

The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have also ruled that tax money may not go to “pervasively sectarian” institutions. In addition, argue Americans United attorneys in the letter, numerous federal regulations prohibit tax funding for programs with overt religious content, including programs that discriminate based on religion or programs that coerce participants to take part in religious activity.

Department of Justice regulations, for example, state bluntly that “[o]rganizations that receive direct financial assistance from [DOJ] under any Department program may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services.”

Based on these constitutional and statutory provisions, AU attorneys assert that 10 of the earmarks appear to clearly violate church-state separation. These include all of the earmarks to Teen Challenge, the above-mentioned earmark to World Impact, an allocation of nearly half a million for the rescue mission ministry in Detroit, as well as the funding of Camp Barnabas in Missouri, the funding of Morning Star Ranch and allocations to ministries in North Dakota and Alabama.

In these cases, there is no gray area. Teen Challenge is a good example. Americans United has challenged taxpayer funding of the group in the past, noting its clear sectarian ties and emphasis on evangelism.

AU points out that officials with Teen Challenge often boast about the religious content of their programs. In 2001, for example, John Castellani, executive director of Teen Challenge International, told a House subcommittee that his organization hires only Christians and that program participants often convert to evangelical Christianity. Jews are welcome, Castellani insisted, noting that some Jewish clients become “completed Jews,” a term evangelicals use to refer to Jewish converts to Christianity.

Comments like this have made Teen Challenge controversial – yet the group remains adept at tapping the public purse. Its success in this area is bipartisan. In Indiana, the state branch of Teen Challenge was slated to receive a Juvenile Justice grant of $94,000 “for expanding educational and vocational training to girls and young women who have completed addiction treatment.” The grant was engineered by Indiana’s senators, Evan Bayh, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar, a Republican.

In addition, the Americans United letter highlights 16 other earmarks that, AU attorneys assert, warrant close scrutiny. In the case of the 16, AU attorneys write that they have been unable to find sufficient information about the programs to determine if the grants would be lawful. But, the attorneys point out, there is reason for concern because the recipient organizations engage in substantial religious teachings, ministry and other sectarian activities. Therefore, the earmarks raise serious constitutional questions.

An example is a program called Operation UNITE in Kentucky. The organization is scheduled to receive one of the larger earmarks on the list – more than $3.5 million in tax money for a drug treatment and education program. Little information is given about this program, but AU attorneys note that Operation UNITE staffers frequently speak about the important role faith plays in overcoming drug addiction.

Remarkably, all of this public money keeps flowing even though there is no evidence that Teen Challenge and other fundamentalist groups that claim to address social ills are effective. Some critics, especially those in the secular recovery community, have questioned Teen Challenge’s claims. The organization frequently insists that it has a high rate of success. No empirical studies back up these claims.

In its letter to the federal officials, Americans United pointed out that the problem with earmarks to religious organizations may be much deeper.

“Although the earmarks listed in this letter are of specific concern based on information currently available to us, we wish to note that there are numerous fiscal year 2008 earmarks that we have not had opportunity to investigate,” wrote Americans United attorneys, “and thus we ask that you evaluate all FY08 earmarks to ensure that they comply with constitutional and regulatory requirements.”

The letter was drafted by AU Madison Fellow Nancy Leong under the direction of AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser and AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.

A few days after the letter to Mukasey, the AU legal team followed up by filing four formal requests for information with the Departments of Education, Justice, Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services under the Freedom of Information Act.

The letters request copies of correspondence, e-mails, contracts, memos, applications and other documents related to the specific earmarks AU is investigating. The letter to the Justice Department, for example, inquires about the Teen Challenge grants as well as the allocations to World Impact, the Detroit Rescue Mission, Grace College, Operation UNITE and five other questionable grants.

Americans United took the action against earmarks in part to increase awareness of the problem, and some of the allocations cited are already attracting media attention. Furthermore, since, as of this writing the Department of Justice has yet to actually disperse any money, it may be possible to stop the allocations entirely. (The status of the other grants is unclear.)

Luchenitser pointed out that AU is not asserting that every one of these earmarks is a constitutional violation. Although AU believes there is strong evidence that some of the earmarks, like those to Teen Challenge, are clearly unconstitutional, with others there was simply not enough information to make the call.

One of the reasons AU wrote the letter to federal officials and filed the Freedom of Information Act requests, Luchenitser said, is to get that information.

“Religious groups often receive public funds to run secular services,” Luchenitser said. “The courts have said that is permissible. What we’re looking out for here is evidence of religious proselytism, coercion or discrimination taking place on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Added Luchenitser, “Organizations that have the main goal of winning people over to a specific religion or that require benefit recipients or employees to subscribe to certain religious codes or theological belief statements are poor candidates for public funding. When AU uncovers evidence of that happening, we will address it.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn underscored those points.

“Government pork for religious work is never kosher,” said Lynn in a press statement. “The federal government should never use public funds to directly support religious missions. The bulk of these earmarks are highly suspect because they are directed at groups or programs that include heavy doses of proselytization.”

AU’s legal team was awaiting answers to its letter and Freedom of Information Act requests as this issue of Church & State went to press. Look for updates in future issues.