Group claims Wisconsin marriage policy entangles government, religion

Thursday, December 30, 1999

A group advocating strict separation of organized religion and government is
challenging Wisconsin's plan to help churches counsel couples before they

Wisconsin's state budget, passed in late October, includes an allocation of
$210,000 for the Community Marriage Policy Project. The project funds a position
in the Department of Health and Family Services “for the purpose of coordinating
the development of, and assisting local members of the clergy to develop
community-wide standards for marriages solemnized in this state by members of
the clergy.” The project's funding comes from federal money sent to the state
under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is earmarked to
fund child care.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Madison that
opposes the slightest entanglement between church and state, wants a federal
judge to declare the project unconstitutional.

The group's complaint filed late last week states that the project “entangles
church and state, establishes religion, and interferes with the free exercise of
religion, all in violation of established constitutional rights.”

Along with filing the suit on behalf of its members, the group is
representing a Christian pastor who says the state initiative is an
unconstitutional interference with religious practice. “As a member of the
clergy, Reverend Charles Wolfe, as well as his congregation, is injured by the
state's impermissible interference with his authority to determine the
appropriate marriage standards for members of his congregation,” the lawsuit

The complaint asks U.S. District Judge John Shabaz to declare the Wisconsin
project a violation of the First Amendment, as well as other fundamental rights,
and to enter a permanent injunction against its operation.

Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen introduced and urged passage of the project,
which he said was needed to help combat high divorce rates.

Jensen also said the project, which churches can enter voluntarily, was
influenced by a program created by a nonprofit Christian group called the
Marriage Savers. The group is based in Potomac, Md., and states that “the
central domestic problem of our time is the breakdown of the American family.”
Marriage Savers says it works with churches nationwide to help couples maintain
a lasting marriage. “Too many churches are simply blessing machines or wedding
factories, grinding out weddings on Saturday, with no strategy on how to help
those couples be successful,” the group states on its Web site.

Jensen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the marriage policy
had a secular purpose and that tax dollars would not flow to “any religious

Dan Stier, legal counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family
Services, was unavailable for comment about the suit.

Anne Nicol Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that the policy amounted to an improper and unconstitutional
state involvement with churches and clergy.

“This budget act uses state money to establish religion, to establish
religious guidelines for use by religious officiators, shows a preference for
church officiators and church weddings, and also curtails the free exercise of
religion,” Gaylor said. “The state is sending a message that clergy are expected
to conform to Marriage Saver ideals.”