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Group plans suit against Minnesota over faith-based initiatives
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In his budget, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed cutting some health and human services programs and trimming state government. (MPR file photo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing the state hire a coordinator to work with faith-based groups seeking state grants to provide social services. Twenty governors have established similar offices, but the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation says the initiatives violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty announced his faith-based proposal last week, as part of his revised budget. He's asking the Legislature to approve $300,000 to hire a coordinator and create a Minnesota Council of Faith-based Initiatives. The council would help faith-based groups get state grants to provide social services. Pawlenty says Minnesota faith-based organizations have long provided social services in the state.

"Often times that service is not coordinated or aligned very well with the state's public policy goals, even though that faith based organizations in many cases are legally qualifying for participating in these grants and the like," Pawlenty said.

State officials say Minnesota hasn't tracked how much state money flows to faith-based groups. But it seems likely to increase under Pawlenty's proposal, if the federal initiative is any indication. The White House says faith-based groups received $1.3 billion from five major federal agencies in 2004. That's an increase of $165 million from 2003, at a time when total grant funding from those agencies was shrinking.

Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation successfully sued the Bush administration over a faith-based grant. In January, a judge prohibited the administration from giving money to an Arizona mentoring group that injected religion into its publicly funded programs.

Freedom from Religion Foundation co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor says her organization plans to sue the state of Minnesota over a faith-based grant, although she declined to give details. And she says state initiatives like the one Pawlenty is proposing raise similar constitutional questions.

"It is showing preference to religion and endorsing religion, and the websites that are funded through the state are intermingling the state logos with religion, and I think it's a very ripe kind of violation to litigate," according to Gaylor.

The Pawlenty administration believes the state initiative is legal. The faith-based coordinator would work in the department of administration, where commissioner Dana Badgerow says her office researched the constitutionality of the initiative. Badgerow says religious groups were limited from competing for federal money until 1996, when President Clinton signed the Charitable Choice Act into law.

"And that allowed state governments to direct federal money to religious groups. And so once that broke down those initial barriers, I think that's opened the doors now for a lot more things to happen," Badgerow said.

Badgerow says the Pawlenty administration is looking for creative ways to supplement state funding, in light of the budget cuts of recent years. Minnesota faces a projected deficit of $466 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

In his budget, Pawlenty proposed cutting some health and human services programs and trimming state government.

Some lawmakers question the need for his faith-based initiative, at the same time Pawlenty is proposing budget cuts. The chair of the Senate State Government Budget Division, Sheila Kiscaden, IP-Rochester, says lawmakers will have to weigh the governor's proposal against competing needs in state government.

"It's a priority for him, but ... we would have to trade off existing services like the Land Management Information Center, which has had a lot of people come forward and say that that would be a loss that would be hard to replace, that local governments could not do this," Kiscaden says.

The Land Management Information Center works with local governments on high-tech mapping and other technologies. Gov. Pawlenty is recommending that the center's funding be cut by more than $800,000 a year.

If Pawlenty succeeds in getting the Legislature to approve his faith-based proposal, Minnesota would join the 20 other states with similar initiatives. Most, but not all, are led by Republican governors. The North Dakota Legislature has just approved the concept, and the measure is on its way to Republican Gov. John Hoeven's desk.