A federal court judge in Wisconsin has ordered the state to stop funding a drug and alcohol addiction program that relies on Christian spirituality in its approach to treatment, the New York Times reports. The decision is widely seen as the first legal challenge to the constitutionality of President Bush's faith-based initiative.
President Bush has praised the Milwaukee-based Faith Works organization as an example of the kind of program he would like to promote through his faith-based initiative, which would provide increased federal funding opportunities for such organizations. A bill similar to the administration's passed the House of Representatives last summer but died in the Senate after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The Faith Works program has received nearly $1 million from the state of Wisconsin, much of it while Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration, was governor.
In a case brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the Federal District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that giving "unrestricted, direct state funding" to Faith Works amounted to government sponsoring of religious practices. Officials of the organization had argued that the government grants were only used in non-religious aspects of its programs. Judge Crabb said her decision was not intended to challenge a 1996 federal statute that loosened restrictions on government funding of religious programs, but scholars said the decision was important because it was the first to declare that government spending on programs with religious aspects is unconstitutional.
"I think this decision is a warning sign that we need to have clearer guidelines about government aid to religious groups," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Arlington, Virginia.
Faith Works is modeled on the Bowery Mission in New York City, which has received more than $1 million in government grants. Faith Works says its program uses a twelve-step approach that is more explicitly Christian than the one used by Alcoholics Anonymous. Most of Faith Works' clients are African-American men who live at the center for up to a year and receive therapy and job training. They also have the option to attend Bible study groups, prayer meetings, and spiritual counseling.