By Gavin Dahl
Friday, May 7th, 2010 — 5:36 pm
A politically-influential Christian organization in Iowa may have violated the Establishment Clause by spending federal funds on a program called “Marriage Matters.” Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa plans to investigate the Iowa Family Policy Center, which received $3 million in federal grants between 2004 and 2009.
The Iowa Independent first reported separation of church and state questions about the funding for a marriage-mentoring program last month. The IFPC, described as a “leading voice of opposition to same-sex marriage in Iowa,” announced days later that they would forgo the final year of funding.
IFPC is set to receive $550,000 through the US Healthy Marriage Demonstration Fund in 2011.
According to The Iowa Independent:
A representative of the U.S. Healthy Marriage program in Washington, D.C., told The Iowa Independent that certain overlap in spending might occur between the grantee (IFPC) and contractor programs (Marriage Matters), although not technically allowed. Marriage Matters is not registered with Iowa Secretary of State as a separate corporation, but rather as a registered trademark of the Iowa Family Policy Center. Mike Hartwig, Bryan English, Marriage Matters, The Iowa Family Policy Center and the IFPC Action PAC all share office space at 1100 N. Hickory Blvd. in Pleasant Hill, and Hartwig is paid a salary as vice president of IFPC.
Rekha Basu wrote in the Des Moines Register that even if IFPC is breaking the law, “it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“Whether it’s one or two organizations, the Iowa Family Policy Center has an explicit social and religious agenda that some Iowans find discriminatory at best and hateful at worst,” Basu wrote. “Since the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, this may not be a federal civil-rights violation. But it’s certainly out of sync with Iowa.”
Randall Wilson, legal director for ACLU of Iowa told The Iowa Independent he has two concerns. “One, were there any Establishment Clause violations, and two, was the money spent in the way in which it was supposed to be spent.”
The federal government could recoup the allegedly misused grant money by employing a clawback provision. The ACLU settled with the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 to avoid a similar situation when a religious abstinence advocacy group used federal dollars to purchase and distribute silver rings engraved with Bible verses. The program was suspended and Silver Ring Thing was rendered ineligible for future federal funding.
In a media activist twist, The Iowa Independent reports liberal radio host and former state lawmaker Ed Fallon recently called for gay and lesbian married couples to seek marriage mentoring services through the admittedly anti-gay Iowa Family Policy Center’s marriage program to see if they would be allowed to participate. If legally married couples were denied service, they would have cause for a claim of discrimination.
Recipients of federal funds cannot discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion or limits of physical ability, thanks to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Although there is no current federal language protecting individuals on the basis of sexual identity, Iowa Code does provide that protection to its citizens.
The state has been granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples consistently for one year, since the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously upheld the District Court’s ruling holding that there was no important governmental interest in denying citizens marriage licenses based on their sexual orientation on April 23, 2009.
The ACLU’s Wilson says he hopes the IFPC situation “receives a whole lot of sunlight.”