Christianson v. Leavitt

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
September 2006
Status: 

On September 12, 2006, AU filed suit in the Western District of Washington challenging two federal grants provided to the Northwest Marriage Institute. The Marriage Institute is a faith-based organization in Vancouver, Washington, that provided Bible-based marriage counseling — sectarian religious counseling grounded in a literal reading of the Bible. Both grants came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Compassion Capital Fund, which aims to expand the "capacity" of faith-based organizations to provide social services. The Marriage Institute used its Compassion Capital Fund grants to purchase office equipment to create materials with explicitly religious content, to purchase equipment that it uses for Bible-based counseling seminars, to hire an accountant, to support its private fundraising efforts, to hire a consultant to build and maintain its religion-infused website, and to pay portions of its employees’ salaries. We filed suit against the Marriage Institute, the Institute for Youth Development — an intermediary organization through which the Marriage Institute received one of the HHS grants — and HHS. After the lawsuit was filed, the Marriage Institute received an additional grant from a separate HHS fund called the Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grant program. In November 2006, we filed an amended complaint to challenge this new grant. We also filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, and we sought expedited discovery (which the court granted). Our cooperating attorneys at Arnold & Porter deposed the Marriage Institute’s administrative assistant and director in January 2007. That same month, Defendants each filed an Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction, and each filed a Motion to Dismiss. In addition, HHS filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. We filed oppositions to all those motions in February. On March 20, the court denied our motion for a preliminary injunction and granted Defendants’ motions to dismiss, finding that the Marriage Institute had converted itself into a secular organization, and its programming into a secular counseling service, and hence that the Marriage Institute could lawfully receive public funding. Although the court ruled against us, the decision is useful precedent in several respects. The court recognized that, in its previous incarnation, the Marriage Institute was "pervasively sectarian" and therefore was ineligible for public funding. And the court upheld the grants only because the counseling programs and the organization’s website were now no longer religious. The upshot is that experts read the decision to stand for the proposition that faith-based organizations must secularize their programs in order to receive public funding.

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