Nancy McCarter found it more than a little odd to read in her local newspaper about federal funding for a marriage-counseling program created by a fundamentalist Christian preacher.
McCarter, a retired government inspector and Clark County, Wash., resident, had decided to start an Americans United chapter out of concern for the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. She was especially interested in the Bush administration’s much-publicized push for a “faith-based” initiative, which entails funneling tax dollars to religious social-service providers.
So when McCarter read in The Columbian, a Vancouver, Wash., daily, that Northwest Marriage Institute is run by a Church of Christ minister, she decided that some research into the situation was needed. Over $47,000 in public funds was going to Bob Whiddon’s Institute, and McCarter and other local AU members of the Clark County Chapter thought some investigation was in order.
“It was clear to me from the research uncovered on Whiddon that he could not separate his religious beliefs from counseling couples on marriage,” McCarter told Church & State. “His beliefs about marriage are integral to his faith.”
After spending time on the Northwest Marriage Institute’s Web site and reading the ministry’s newsletters, McCarter became incensed that public dollars were flowing to an outfit with a solely religious mission.
“The group promotes a rigid and fundamentalist view of marriage – one that is not even open to many Christians,” she said.
McCarter then contacted the headquarters of Americans United to share her research, which included the additional information that the marriage institute had received more than one federal grant. In 2005, the group had received two federal grants totaling $97,750. Dena Spilker Sher, an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow with Americans United, who has tracked the administration’s faith-based initiative was also troubled by the federal financing of the Northwest Marriage Institute and took the lead in pursuing the case.
“You have here a clear example of the federal government using tax dollars to advance a religious group’s mission,” Sher said. “There is not a secular component to what the Northwest Marriage Institute does. The group exists solely to promote and propagate a religious understanding of marriage. Thus, the bottom line is that public support of the Northwest Marriage Institute is a blatant affront to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.”
Indeed, according to its mission statement, the Institute exists to provide “Bible education in marriage and related subjects, and to provide professional, Bible-based pre-marital and marriage counseling.” It works to preserve “Christian marriages” by promoting “successful biblical principles everyday.”
In early September, Americans United initiated a federal lawsuit challenging the public funding of Northwest Marriage Institute. The litigation, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, was brought on behalf of McCarter and 12 other Washington residents, many of them members of the Clark County Chapter of Americans United.
Another of the plaintiffs, Barry Christianson, an Americans United member since 2000 and a partially disabled Vietnam veteran, said he was inspired by the work of McCarter and the Clark County Chapter.
“This situation is an excellent example of what a group of local, committed Americans United members can do to help safeguard religious liberties,” Christianson told Church & State. “And the Clark County Chapter’s research on the Northwest Marriage Institute was an inspiration to other citizens here. In fact, we’ve already formed two chapters and are in the process of starting up others.”
Christianson, who is a retired corporate finance consultant, became interested in church-state separation when living in Gardner, Mont., where he discovered that many of the public school officials were also staunch members and backers of an evangelical Christian church.
At the time, Christianson was coaching a girls’ public school soccer team in the small community and learned of pervasive proselytizing by many school personnel. He said he was deeply troubled by the way non-Christians and other students were treated.
After moving back to the West Coast “to get back to saltwater,” Christianson said he sought out an Americans United chapter and was invited by McCarter to attend a Clark County Chapter meeting where the Northwest Marriage Institute grants were discussed.
“I thought this was the most blatant example of mixing faith-based marriage counseling with taxpayer dollars,” Christianson said. “And it was particularly appalling that after we filed the lawsuit, HHS saw fit to award another $1.2 million to these folks. It is just wrong.”
After the case went to court, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded an additional grant totaling $246,000, renewable in the same amount for four more years, to the Northwest Marriage Institute. The award, called a Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grant, brought the amount of federal funding of the Institute to almost $1.35 million. In early November, Americans United amended its complaint to include a challenge to the most recent grant as well.
AU’s lawsuit, Christianson v. Leavitt, states that “HHS awarded the Marriage Institute those massive sums even after this lawsuit was filed and the government was already defending against plaintiffs’ claims, demonstrating with stark clarity the government’s flagrant disregard” for the separation of church and state.
The lawsuit argues that the federal grants awarded to the Institute “straightforwardly violate” the First Amendment principle of church-state separation, that the government should stop funding religion and that the Institute should repay all the government grants.
After the lawsuit was filed, Whiddon, who also serves as a part-time staff counselor for the Washington state office of the Agape Counseling Center, claimed that no federal funds were used for religious purposes. However, he was also quoted in several media accounts as saying, “We are a faith-based organization and we do provide faith-based counseling…. I use the Bible as my counseling manual.”
The Agape Counseling Center claims it has “developed an expertise in Christian counseling and known psychological laws about human nature and abide by Christian ethics.”
Whiddon told The New York Times that the federal grants had not funded the Institute’s marriage-counseling programs but were only used to strengthen its ability to raise more money.
In AU’s lawsuit, however, Americans United attorneys argue that the Institute used the grants 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 35-page complaint includes examples of Whiddon’s marriage-counseling advice. The examples were culled from newsletters he compiled for ministers to counsel couples on marriage. Those materials were created before Whiddon founded the Institute in early 2005, but they clearly indicate his sectarian perspective. According to the Institute’s Web site, Whiddon has 25 years experience in “ministry and counseling.”
In a 2002 newsletter, Whiddon states that “God designed marriage. He created it…. He wrote the rules on how it is to function well.” In 2000 counseling material, Whiddon states that the “roles of men and women within marriage are defined by the Bible” and that married couples “can solve problems in their marriage by ‘[k]nowing how God placed each in the family.’”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, told The Times that the Institute’s marriage-counseling program “trains people in how to make their marriages conform to one narrow interpretation of faith. The federal government has no business forcing the taxpayer to subsidize that.”
Sher said that Americans United’s legal challenge has the potential of derailing a major component of the Bush faith-based initiative. Since early in his administration, President George W. Bush has pushed for more religious involvement in the operation of social services.
An increasingly major part of the initiative has included programs to promote marriage. A host of Religious Right organizations has claimed that divorce rates can be lowered by Bible-based marriage counseling, and the Bush administration has sought to steer tax dollars to such groups.
“The administration’s efforts to support with public funds religion-based marriage-counseling programs must be thwarted,” Sher said. “Our lawsuit seeks to reverse the trend of advancing religious missions with tax dollars.”
In early October, HHS announced it was awarding $150 million in federal grants to dozens of marriage-counseling programs. Besides funding the Northwest Marriage Institute, HHS directed grants to other religious providers, such as Bethany Christian Services Inc., the National Association of Marriage Enhancement, Fountain of Life International Ministries, Inc., Cornerstone of Hope Church in Indianapolis, John Brown University, the Salvation Army and Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas.
Those organizations, like the Northwest group, also have blatant religious missions.
For example, the National Association of Marriage Enhancement, which is based in Phoenix, Ariz., proclaims, “When we educate our communities concerning the family, we are building the leaders God intended as representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not the answer; rather, we are representatives of the Answer. Through marriage ministry, communities are changing their mentality for God and the people who represent them.”
Christianson told Church & State that he doesn’t “see how one could see this type of funding as anything other than a flagrant violation” of the First Amendment.
“Because of my former work as small-business consultant,” Christianson said, “I know for a fact that co-mingling of funds is a fact of life in any organization, and in this situation, you had federal monies that were used to train people who were then going to do religious work. You also had public dollars being used to build a Web site that has essentially become a means of proselytizing.”
In its lawsuit, Americans United details how Northwest Marriage Institute’s program is saturated with fundamentalist Christianity and, therefore, not a proper vehicle for government support.
The Institute’s marriage-counseling program includes sessions called “God’s Plan for a Healthy Marriage.” Participants are instructed that God created marriage and are provided God’s instructions for how marriage should work. Citing Institute literature, Americans United notes that couples will “discover tools, embedded in God’s Word, that can be used in real life to resolve real life problems.”
Northwest Marriage Institute’s Web site, before it was altered in late October following the filing of Americans United’s lawsuit, also included a premarital quiz that asked, “Why does God not allow couples to be involved in pre-marital sex?” and what does it mean when “the Bible says that the ‘husband is the head of the wife.’” Americans United charges that the Institute used some of the money it attained from its federal grants to create its Web site.
Whiddon re-launched the Web site in early November. Some religious references were removed but much of the original content remained intact. Thus, the Web site still links declining church attendance to high divorce rates.
The group claims, for example, that “65% of all who live in Oregon and 67% of all who live in Washington have no connection to any church.” There is, according to the Web site, a “great need” to “take biblical marriage education and biblical marriage-counseling to the communities.”
AU’s Sher said that if Northwest were attempting to mask the religiosity of its marriage-counseling work, it had failed.
Whiddon has stated on numerous occasions that the only way to save troubled marriages is by adhering to a strict and narrow reading of the Bible.
Indeed, Whiddon’s only experience in marriage counseling, Americans United’s lawsuit notes, centers on his use of scripture. He has explained that only Bible-based counseling can be successful, because “if it is not founded on the Bible it will not work.” Additionally Whiddon has claimed that “whatever is done in counseling…must rest upon the Bible.”
AU plaintiff McCarter says it is Northwest’s religious mission that should not be funded with public dollars. She said such programs are properly funded by private means.
“This lawsuit is not against any faith,” McCarter said. “It is against the misappropriation of public funds.”
Christianson said that he is a committed advocate for church-state separation.
“I will do this work until I draw my last breath,” he said.
Christianson then cited the oath he swore when he joined the military and before heading off to Vietnam.
“When I enlisted in the Air Force, I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Little did I realize at the time that I would be fighting a domestic enemy at this point in my life,” the enemy being the theocratic Religious Right, he said.
Christianson said he hopes the AU lawsuit will raise Americans’ awareness of the dangers facing the fundamental freedom of religious liberty.
“I hope they understand,” he said, “that the attempt to use taxpayer funds for political purposes is pervasive and that unless people are diligent, it will continue. There will be more episodes like the Northwest case.”