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Judge blocks faith-based grant to Arizona group

/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge has blocked the Bush administration from providing future “faith-based” grants to an Arizona mentoring group that injected religion into its publicly funded programs.

The ruling is the first time a judge has struck down a grant through the president’s faith-based initiative, which seeks to give religious groups equal footing in seeking federal grants to provide social services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cut off funds to MentorKids USA in December after evidence showed the group used public money to directly support activities such as worship or religious instruction.

U.S. District Judge John Shabaz’s ruling Tuesday prohibits the agency from funding MentorKids in the future.

MentorKids USA, based in Phoenix, received a three-year grant in 2003 to mentor the children of prisoners. The program hired only Christians to work as mentors and required them to adhere to a Christian statement of faith and code of conduct.

Mentors were also encouraged to share their faith with the children they worked with, introduce them to Scripture and provide monthly reports on whether the kids had discussed God, participated in Bible study or attended church.

Daryl Reese, the program’s executive director, said MentorKids took steps to exclude religion from the work it did with the public grant.

“We simply said here is where the line is,” Reese said. “Anything that we’ve got that’s religious in nature is not a federal government program.”

Anne Nicol Gaylor, founder of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Friday that MentorKids is just one of many groups that uses public money to promote religion.

“Faith-based is supposed to be social services, not religious services, and that was religion-drenched,” Gaylor said.

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives said it is the first time a grant has been struck down because of concerns over a program’s religious content.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency is reviewing whether it can resume the grant should MentorKids USA show it can separate its religious and secular work.

Bush’s program handed out $1.17 billion in grants to faith-based organizations in 2003.