Crisis Pregnancy Centers Play Fast and Loose with Church and State

 

An investigative report into the nation’s crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) by Sofia Resnick of the American Independent has raised red flags, suggesting that the organizations may be violating separation of church and state in their use of government funds.

That’s actually quite hard to do. In 2002, via two executive orders, President George W. Bush controversially declared that “faith-based” organizations could receive government grants to provide social services. Moreover, he decreed they could administer those services while still using religious names, mission statements, hiring policies and facilities. The only First Amendment stipulation was that they could not use federal funds for “inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.”

Among the beneficiaries of Bush’s faith-based initiatives programs have been crisis pregnancy centers: “counseling” centers whose main goal is to dissuade women from abortion. They received an estimated $60 million dollars in federal grants for abstinence-only programs between 2001 and 2006. Resnick determined that in 2012, CPCs will receive some level of federal funding, as well as at least 17 million dollars from individual states, which are bound by the same rules.

Resnick’s report, “Jobs for Christians,” reveals that nearly all of these CPCs have an explicitly Christian mission statement and a Christians-only hiring policy (even for volunteers). A spokesperson for the major CPC network Heartbeat International told Resnick, “We hire individuals who support our mission, our vision and our Christian core operational values and beliefs.”

These revelations have caused an uproar in the feminist blogosphere. But of course, thanks to Bush, religious mission statements and hiring practices are perfectly legal for federally funded charities (though some legal and religious groups want to change that). Under the Faith-Based Initiatives program, a taxpayer-funded soup kitchen can hire only Christians. The only line drawn by the law is that worship and religious instruction must remain separate: no gospel with the soup.

Proselytizing is where CPCs may be running afoul of the law. Resnick provides public materials from various centers that give the strong impression of preaching gospel to the women they council, which would violate separation of church and state. Resnick cites one crisis pregnancy center in Tampa, Fla., that tells prospective volunteers:

Our doors are open to women who do not know where else to turn, women searching for answers and help with unexpected pregnancies. Women who need honest information and material items for their baby.

Women who need Jesus!

YOU can be the one to introduce them to Jesus and help them make life-changing decisions. [itals added]

Likewise, CareNet, one of the largest network of CPCs in the country, makes all workers agree to a pledge that describes spreading the gospel as the CPCs’ “primary mission”:

The primary mission of the center is to share the truth and love of Jesus Christ in conjunction with a ministry to those facing pregnancy related issues. The pregnancy center is an outreach ministry of Jesus Christ through His church. Therefore, the pregnancy center, embodied in its volunteers, is committed to presenting the gospel of our Lord to women with crisis pregnancies — both in word and in deed. [itals added]

Such language certainly makes it sound as though CPCs consider Jesus to be part and parcel of anti-abortion counseling. After reading these passages, Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Ms.:

Using taxpayer money to provide explicitly Christian-based pregnancy counseling is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Soup kitchens might be able to separate their religious message from the food they serve. But the CPCs’ own documents and promotional materials illustrate that their advice to pregnant women is not and cannot be separated from their religious mission.

And if this is what’s written down on paper, and with their overwhelming emphasis on hiring only Christians, I can only imagine what actually happens day to day.

Using federal funds to preach Christianity seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen. The proof, of course, is in the pudding: We won’t know for certain what happens inside CPCs unless clients or staff are willing to speak out.

Have you gone to a crisis pregnancy center and been (literally) preached at? Tell us in the comments or email jstites [at] msmagazine.com.

Take Action: To demand that the U.S. government stop funding CPCs, sign here.

The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination has repeatedly petitioned the Obama administration to end Bush’s exemptions for faith-based initiatives to practice religious discrimination in hiring. You can support the campaign here.

Photo from Marketplace Indiana.

 

About

Jessica Stites is Associate Editor at Ms. magazine.