Wisconsin group challenges state funding of religious-based agency

Thursday, October 19, 2000

In one of the first lawsuits challenging a charitable-choice program,
a Wisconsin-based group that advocates church-state separation has filed a
federal lawsuit challenging the public funding of a religious agency.

In 1999, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson agreed to provide public
funding for Faith Works — a Christian-based addiction-recovery program
for men — under a state welfare-to-work grant administered by the state
department of workforce development.

The program, which has been touted by presidential candidate George W.
Bush, receives two-thirds of its $700,000 yearly budget from tax dollars.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation — whose stated goal is “to
keep church and state separate” — and three of its members sued Thompson
and other state officials on Oct. 12, alleging that public funding of Faith
Works violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and a similar
provision of the Wisconsin Constitution.

In Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.
v. Thompson
, the plaintiffs argue that the establishment clause
has been violated “because funds are given directly to a pervasively sectarian
organization and the funds are used directly to pay for explicitly Christian
programs designed to indoctrinate clients in the Christian faith.”

“State appropriations to Faith Works convey a message that the
Christian religion is favored, preferred and promoted over other beliefs and
nonbelief, and Faith Works’ mission is clothed in traditional indicia of
government endorsement,” the plaintiffs allege.

They ask for an order that prohibits further public funding of Faith
Works, declares that the funding violates the establishment clause and forces
the defendants to establish new rules to ensure that future appropriations
don’t go to pervasively sectarian groups.

The governor’s office, however, says its funding of Faith Works is

“The governor is confident we meet state and federal constitutional
requirements,” said Tony Jewell, Thompson’s press secretary. “This program has
proven to work.

“The governor believes that we need more programs like this and fewer
lawsuits,” Jewell said. “We need to spend more time helping men in trouble and
less time in the court.”

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