Americans United for Separation of Church and State today called on the Obama administration to investigate ten earmarks for religious schools and ministries that raise constitutional issues about inappropriate public funding of religion.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and three other cabinet officers, Americans United urged the administration to examine the congressional earmarks and block the funding unless appropriate legal safeguards can be put in place.
“Taxpayers should never be forced to support religion,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Congress should not approve earmark funding for projects that advance religion. Religious pork is bad for America’s constitutional health.”
The earmarks include:
-- Atlanta Christian College (East Point, Ga.): $350,000 for curriculum development and technology upgrades. The college seeks to “educate students for Christ-centered service and leadership throughout the world” and “every degree includes a major or minor in Biblical Studies.”
-- Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood, N.J.): $275,000 for an initiative to expand the rabbinical school’s job training and career counseling services. The services focus on preparing its students to be teachers and administrators in secondary Torah schools and institutions of higher Talmudic studies as practicing rabbis and as experts in rabbinical jurisprudence.
-- Grace College and Theological Seminary (Winona Lake, Ind.): $150,000 for curriculum development, technology upgrades and additional course offerings. Grace College is an evangelical Christian liberal arts college that discriminates among applicants based on religion.
-- Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch (Minot, N.D.): $475,000 to expand a program for high-risk elementary school students. The Christian ministry’s programs include prayer, Bible studies, counseling and discussion concerning God’s plan for participants.
-- Men of Valor Academy (Oakland, Calif.): $100,000 to expand building trades instruction that can only be taken by individuals who first complete a program that includes Christian teachings.
-- Team Focus, Inc. (Mobile Ala.): four earmarks for mentoring projects in four states: $500,000 each for projects in South Carolina and Alabama, $400,000 for one in Mississippi, and $100,000 for one in Texas. Team Focus is a faith-based non-profit organization that apparently includes Bible study and prayer in its mentoring programs for young men.
-- Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch (Minot, N.D.): In addition to the Department of Education earmark for high-risk youth intervention programs described above, this ministry was designated to receive a $200,000 Juvenile Justice grant from the Department of Justice to fund the same programs.
-- Wesley Biblical Seminary (Jackson, Miss.): $250,000 to support programming costs associated with the Christian seminary’s effort to establish a “multi-cultural center.”
-- United Methodist Children’s Home (Selma, Ala.): $150,000 for security and information technology improvements. The ministry Web site explains that part of its mission is to “teach [the children] about God, their heavenly Father” and notes that the Home provides spiritual life and development as an important part of its ministry by “connecting [the] children with local United Methodist Churches in their area so they may participate in worship services, Sunday school, and children and youth activities.”
-- Tacoma Rescue Mission (Tacoma, Wash.): $350,000 to complete construction on a shelter building. The Mission’s activities include “shar[ing] our Christian faith.” Within the shelter building itself, the Mission offers “daily encouragement through counseling, spiritual guidance and assurance of hope.”
In the letter to the Obama administration, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser wrote, “We ask that you carefully investigate these earmarks and that you impose any restrictions necessary to ensure that the earmarks satisfy all legal requirements. If such restrictions cannot feasibly be put in place for one or more of the earmarks, then, in order to comply with the law, please refrain from funding those earmarks.”
In addition to Holder, AU wrote to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Luchenitser emphasized that AU’s concerns are focused on constitutional standards, not hostility to religion.
“We strongly believe,” he wrote, “that religious institutions play a vital role in American society, and we applaud the work that many such institutions perform in providing much-needed social services to our country’s most disadvantaged citizens. We emphasize, however, that in considering whether to fund the efforts of such organizations, the government must be mindful of the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”