Faith-Based No More? The U Gets Hit with a Church-State Lawsuit

The U of M is getting cozy with a religious organization. One church-state activist is suing over it.

In 1976, Annie Laurie Gaylor, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found herself peeved by the school's long-standing tradition of including prayers in the commencement services. That, she thought, was a clear-cut violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which bars the government from promoting specific religions.

Gaylor complained to the university, prevailed, and, along the way, discovered her calling. As co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, she has since been a party to approximately 30 church-state lawsuits, wrangling with elected officials over everything from publicly funded nativity pageants to proselytizing school crossing guards to courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments.

The Bush administration's aggressive efforts to increase public funding sources for "faith-based" causes has provided Gaylor and the 5,500 members of the Madison-based organization with fertile territory for litigation. "We have taken more faith-based lawsuits to date than any other group, and there will be more," Gaylor says. The organization currently has three such suits pending, including one in Minnesota.

In that case, filed earlier this spring, the foundation is suing the University of Minnesota for its participation in an entity called the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium. Among other things, the suit alleges that "religious indoctrination is an integral component" of MFHC and that "patently religious principles dominate [its] approach to public health." According to its website, the MFHC seeks to "increase understanding of the links between faith and health, demonstrate the relevance of faith in wellness and disease prevention and initiate faith and health projects." Citing the pending litigation, Pat Peterson, MFHC coordinator, said she could not comment.

Last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation prevailed in a lawsuit against an entity with a similar mission (and an identical acronym), the Montana Faith Health Cooperative. However, Gaylor notes, the case against the U will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen, marking the first time the foundation has drawn a Bush appointee in one of its legal crusades.

Whatever the outcome, Gaylor is optimistic about the future of her cause. This may seem surprising. After all, it is a truth widely acknowledged that the judiciary has become increasingly conservative and fundamentalist--and that evangelical Christians are more involved in the political process than ever before. Less widely noticed, says Gaylor, is another important trend: the growing numbers of Americans who are either atheists or agnostics.

Indeed, in a 2001 survey of religious attitudes of the American public, the City University of New York found that approximately 29.4 million Americans self-identified as "non-religious," up from 14.3 million just a decade earlier. Over the same period, the number of Americans who identified themselves as Christian dropped by 9 percent. "We're growing," Gaylor says of her secular cohort, "and we think there is more muscle to flex than people realize."

The foundation's activities in Minnesota may not end with the U. If Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to create a Minnesota Council of Faith-Based Initiatives (at a cost of $300,000) is approved by the legislature, Gaylor says, there could be grounds for another lawsuit.

 
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