CPCs Hire Christians Only With Federal Funds? Thank Obama

At the newly-reconstituted American Independent News Network, Sofia Resnick has a story about how crisis pregnancy centers, which are well-known to be Christian-focused, promote a religious agenda and hire only other Christians. That’s something they can legally do if they are privately funded.

In some cases, Resnick reports, they do that with federal funds.

If you’ve got a problem with that, though, take it up with the Obama administration.

As I’ve reported on numerous occasions, as a candidate, Obama promised to change a Bush-era rule that permitted recipients of federal funds to discriminate in hiring staff based on religion (a practice known euphemistically to its promoters as “co-religionist hiring.”) After political pressure from evangelical leaders, Obama reneged on that promise, among others pertaining to reforming his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In the face of repeated requests from church-state separate advocates in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, Obama has refused to eliminate the hiring rule, opting instead for a vague “case-by-case” look at whether there has been discrimination in hiring or firing. What’s more, on the campaign trail he promised to strengthen constitutional protections in faith-based funding, but as the ACLU’s Dena Sher pointed out just last week, promised protocols to ensure that the constitutional rights of citizens served by taxpayer-funded faith-based organizations are protected remain stalled. 

That crisis pregnancy centers are Christian-centric is not news. And the hiring question, as well as questions about proselytizing to recipients of services, are more legally complex than Resnick suggests, largely because the Obama administration has failed to put in place the requisite constitutional protections.

As I reported in a story about CPCs in Texas last year, some of which, as Resnick notes, receive federal funding through the Alternatives to Abortion program:

The Alternatives to Abortion program is modeled on a Pennsylvania program launched at the urging of former Governor Bob Casey, a Catholic anti-choice Democrat whose son, Bob Casey Jr., since being elected to the US Senate in 2006, has pressed for federal legislation funding “alternatives” to abortion.* The Texas program uses federal funds under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which are disbursed in block grants to the states. The program in Texas is outsourced to the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit formed in 2005 for the purpose of administering the contract. Vincent Friedewald III, a lawyer who joined TPCN as executive director in 2006, declined a request for an interview. However, he says on the TPCN website that he joined the group after conducting research that convinced him that “countless women were suffering through a decision they never really wanted to make—nor wouldn’t have to—if just one other person were available to listen, support, protect, and educate.”

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The TPCN website claims to subject its subcontractors to a rigorous selection process. But when I sought documents related to that selection process from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the agency that administers the contract, through the Texas Public Records law, I was told that those documents were in TPCN’s possession. When I sought them from Friedewald, he told me in an email that those materials are “proprietary to each applicant organization, and are not ours to share.”

Among the criteria the potential providers must meet are “maintain[ing] a pro-life mission and agree[ing] not to promote, refer, or counsel in favor of abortion or abortifacients as an option to a crisis or unplanned pregnancy” and “agree[ing] not to promote the teaching or philosophy of any religion while providing services to the client.” Yet most, if not all, of the centers maintain that Christian faith is central to their mission. Many are affiliated with Care Net, which describes itself as a “Christ-centered ministry whose mission is to promote a culture of life within our society in order to serve people facing unplanned pregnancies and related sexual issues.” Others are affiliated with Heartbeat International, which says it “does not promote birth control” because its “policies and materials are consistent with biblical principles and with orthodox Christian (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) ethical principles and teaching on the dignity of the human person and sanctity of human life.”

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Because the TANF funds for the Alternatives to Abortion program are disbursed by the federal government, recipients must comply with Charitable Choice regulations requiring a separation of religious and secular services. Friedewald boasts that not only do his providers keep religious and secular pamphlets separate as required by Charitable Choice, but that they are required to obtain written consent from clients that they want “spiritual counseling”—a step not required by the federal regulations.

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The pregnancy centers are inspected periodically by Friedewald’s staff, but not overseen in any way by the state or federal government. The TPCN submits quarterly reports to the Health and Human Services Commission, outlining the results of the inspections. Providers cannot seek state reimbursement, for example, if they fail to obtain the written consent for spiritual counseling for a client. But there is no oversight of how such consent is obtained, nor of what is involved in the “non-spiritual” counseling.

Anti-choice activists and Republican politicians argue that Planned Parenthood should be denied taxpayer funding for family planning services because it also performs abortions—even if the funding streams are kept segregated. Yet they refuse to apply the same argument to taxpayer funding of crisis pregnancy centers, which are driven by a theological agenda.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said crisis pregnancy centers are “100% religious 100% of the time.” Still, though, proving a legal case that the funding in a particular instance is unconstitutional (as opposed to a political argument that it’s an undesirable mingling of taxpayer dollars with religious messaging) would be difficult, in part because of the intimate nature of the services the centers provide.

“Just gathering the evidence to know what case to bring would be difficult,” said Lynn. “This is a long haul to get from knowing that this is going on instinctively or in conversations and being able to prove that a specific entity used its federal money that was enmeshed with its theological message. That’s a big hurdle. Could it happen? Yes. But it’s an incredibly intensive effort to achieve that.”

The funding through TANF, though, raises questions about the efficacy of the Charitable Choice regulations to assure taxpayers that such commingling isn’t taking place. TPCN’s claim that it goes beyond the regulations remains unverified as there’s no mechanism for the state or federal government to ensure that taxpayer money isn’t being used to promote a sectarian religious agenda. Dena Sher, legislative counsel at the ACLU, also said the Charitable Choice regulations are inadequate when it comes to the rights of beneficiaries to be free of sectarian religious messages. “The conditions that [clients] are put in afford an opportunity for these organizations to engage in prayer, or worship, or proselytizing, and beneficiaries probably really don’t feel they have an option to step away,” she said. 

In the absence of the sort of changes Obama promised on the campaign trail, the Charitable Choice regulations remain in place. And as the Texas Pregnancy Care Network story—as well as other anecdotes Resnick lays out in her piece—reveal, these regulations are inadequate to ensure that taxpayers are not funding sectarian religious activity, and that the rights of citizens who receive services from those taxpayer-funded organizations aren’t violated.