Religious conservatives have a funny understanding of the separation of church and state and nowhere is this more obvious than the relationship between religious organizations and federal subsidies. Now, in a perfect world federal and state governments wouldn’t subsidize religious organizations, but our world is far from perfect. So much so that a Christian crisis pregnancy center is suing the federal government because it won’t subsidize its expansion.
Care Net is part of a national umbrella network of Christian crisis pregnancy centers, self-described women’s “health” centers designed to steer pregnant women away from abortions, often through deceptive practices and medically inaccurate information. Thanks in no small part to conservative attacks on reproductive rights nationwide, business for Care Net is doing well. So well the group applied to the federal government for a loan to help buy and renovate a building so it can offer Bible instruction and even more services aimed at preventing abortion.
Given the nature of Care Net’s mission and work, it should come as little surprise that the government denied the group’s loan request. But Care Net was surprised and is suing to force the government to give it the money.
The group lost the loan after government officials learned about a rewards-based learning program called “Learn to Earn” where expectant parents had to take a certain number of parenting and Bible study classes in order to receive free baby supplies. Care Net also offers “bible centered” programming designed to “heal” women post abortion and to promote abstinence-only sex education classes. Taken together, the government concluded that providing any funding to Care Net, even for any arguably non-religious services it may provide, created the potential for “excessive government entanglement with religion” and would therefore violate the First Amendment.
Sounds reasonable, right? After all, this “incidental funding” theory is the same conservatives push when trying to defund Planned Parenthood, so how can the religious right complain when the rules are applied to them?
Right. I’m still laughing at that last question, too.
Supported by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian conservative legal group and a private New Hampshire law firm, Care Net is arguing that the government’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act and its constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. In October, a federal judge ordered a federal hearing officer to consider these arguments in deciding whether Care Net should get the loan. The idea Care Net is pushing here is that protecting religious speech — as practiced through actions that in any other setting would violate other anti-discrimination laws — necessarily means the government turn a blind eye to those actions lest it “discriminate” against that speech. Confused yet? Because that’s the whole point — to confuse First Amendment jurisprudence beyond recognition. And they just might succeed.
The heart of the argument here, and in the legal challenges to the contraception mandate, is that the government can’t force Christians to comply with civil rights laws because those civil rights laws conflict with their religious rights. Never mind that the exercise of those religious rights impacts more than just the faithful, conservatives argue. Christian religious liberty trumps all.
Should the lawsuit succeed then we can expect to see more challenges to government restrictions on funding religious organizations as faith groups look for more and more ways to use federal dollars to spread their religious message while simultaneously restricting access to the services those federal dollars provide. And as states further slash social services spending faith groups stand ready to fill the vacuum of services left in those funding cuts, creating the perfect storm for an unprecedented and dangerous expansion of religion into our civic lives.
Photo from photosteve101 via flickr.