U.S. Rep. Mark E. Souder took no chances when he decided to schedule a field hearing on President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative. Souder is an Indiana Republican, but he conducted the Jan. 23 hearing in Colorado Springs a city where several evangelical Christian groups are headquartered and stacked it with five staffers from radio counselor James Dobson's Focus on the Family (FOF).
All of that was enough to make supporters of church-state separation suspicious. A glance at the witness list revealed further cause for concern: One of the speakers was Mike Haley, whose title is "manager of gender issues" for FOF.
In fact, Americans United quickly learned, Haley oversees the group's effort to "cure" gay and lesbian people by converting them to fundamentalist Christianity. His appearance on the panel made Americans United and gay rights groups wonder if some in Congress and the Bush administration may be interested in steering tax money to so-called "ex-gay" ministries through the "faith-based" initiative.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that Souder, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, is a close ally of the Religious Right and also serves as the Bush administration's point man on the faith-based initiative in the House.
"The so-called 'ex-gay' groups are nothing more than covers for fundamentalist indoctrination programs," said Lynn. "They don't deserve one dime of taxpayer support. It would be outrageous if the Bush administration and Rep. Souder are seriously considering giving public funds to this sort of program."
Lynn noted that on FOF's website (www.family.org), Haley claims that homosexuals can be converted from their sexual orientation even though most mental health professionals long ago dropped such notions. One recent Focus press release quotes Haley as saying, "Our culture continues to tell us that homosexuality is genetic and can't be changed and even that it is blessed by God. But I and thousands of others know that this is simply not true, and we encourage the public to come hear our side of this controversial topic."
During the hearing, Haley claimed that his conversion ministry, Love Won Out, has no interest in receiving tax support.
"Our ministry and the hope it offers would not be possible without the power of Christ," he said. "I would not have overcome my homosexuality and now have a message of redemption and new life without Christ."
Another FOF staffer, Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy, said he believes government funding will eventually lead to strings. Nevertheless, Minnery said FOF supports the "faith-based" initiative and believes government funding can be given to religious groups for non-religious activities.
"It would work fine by setting up the income structure so that the money from the federal government clearly goes to the soup kitchen and the bed and the heating, and separate funding goes toward the preaching, if that's part of the offering, so there are separate funds," Minnery said.
Lynn said he wondered why FOF staffers agreed to address the congressional panel at all if they aren't interested in public funds.
Asserted Lynn, "This field hearing appears to be little more than a showcase for the extreme views of Focus on the Family. That's bad enough. But for Congress to provide a forum for the views of 'ex-gay' ministries is beyond the pale and an insult to millions of Americans."
Concluded Lynn, "If members of Congress see this hearing as an opening move toward funding religious conversion, they had better think again. Resistance to such a move will be swift and strong."
David Tseng, the executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, concurred.
"It is unconscionable that our federal elected officials would even consider using the hard-earned tax dollars of millions of parents to fund the denigration of their children," Tseng said.
But the hearing turned out to be not a total washout. One witness offered the panel some insightful comments. According to the Denver Post, Jean Robinson, associate director of Urban Ministries, said her group offers aid to those in need without proselytizing. Robinson asserted that people in crisis need help, not heavy-handed religious coercion.
Robinson also rejected the assertion that the government discriminates against religious groups, noting that funding has gone to Catholic Charities, Jewish groups and other religious organizations.