We’re pleased today to report an important win for church-state separation: Officials in Detroit ceased involvement with a taxpayer-funded program after Americans United raised concerns about its legality and lack of religious freedom safeguards.

The program, known as the Faith Forward Fund, was designed to give tax money to faith-based entities to deal with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was co-sponsored and partially funded by the city but was carried out by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. AU noted that the United Way affiliate’s website stated that both faith-based organizations and secular nonprofits were eligible for grants so long as they have an operating budget of less than $250,000. But various other statements on the site and in other materials about the program suggested that only faith-based organizations would be eligible.

Bob Holley, an AU member in the area, alerted us to the problem, and our Legal Department got on the case. In a letter to city officials, AU noted, “To begin with, the very name of the program – Faith Forward Fund – suggests that it is only for faith-based organizations and communicates a City preference for and endorsement of religion. The City press release announcing the Program is entitled, ‘City announces Faith Forward grant program to help sustain churches, synagogues, mosques during COVID-19 pandemic.’ While the press release mentions that small nonprofits are eligible, it contains quotes from Mayor Duggan, Wendy Lewis Jackson, Dr. Darienne Hudson, and Paul Propson that only speak of faith-based organizations.”

Furthermore, AU pointed out that there was no language in the program materials stating that the money could not be used for religious purposes – a distinction that’s necessary to protect taxpayers’ religious freedom.

But AU didn’t just point out the problems. Our attorneys made a number of suggestions, including:

  • Modifying all program materials to make clear that religious and nonreligious nonprofit organizations are equally eligible for program funds; remove any statements that may suggest that only faith-based organizations are eligible or that there is any kind of preference for faith-based organizations.
  • Modifying the program eligibility requirements so that nonreligious vaccine-site partners are eligible to the same extent as religious ones.
  • Changing the name of the program so that it is inclusive of both religious and nonreligious organizations.
  • Making clear in the program materials that program funds must not be used for religious activities or purposes.
  • Requiring applicants for program funds to certify in their applications that they will not use program funds for religious activities or purposes.
  • Putting in place procedures to monitor use of program funds after they are disseminated to ensure that the money does not go to religious uses.

City officials responded quickly to AU’s letter. They pulled taxpayer money out of the program; in addition, the United Way has added restrictions that will ensure that the money will not be used for religious purposes. The group also made it clear that all grants must be used to serve the citizens of Detroit without discrimination.

Alerted by a local activist to a problem, AU was able to quickly fix it. Your support makes victories like this possible. Thank you!