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Pennsylvania Contractor Prohibited from Using State and Federal Funds for Religious Purposes

Pennsylvania Contractor Prohibited from Using State and Federal Funds for Religious Purposes

by Bob Williams

Citizens in Bradford County, Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the County and state and federal officials after government funds allegedly were used for religious prosetylizing of jail prisoners. A consent order was entered that required monitoring of the government funds and a prohibition against using such funds for religious purposes.
The Firm Foundation of America, d/b/a the Firm Foundation of Bradford County (Firm), provides vocational training for prisoners at the Bradford County Jail. The Firm receives federal, state and local government grants and other funding for this purpose, which reportedly total more than 90 percent of its income.

The Firm began receiving federal funds in 2002, which continued in 2003 through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). The PCCD awarded the Firm funding through a Workforce Investment Act grant received from the U.S.
Department of Labor under the “Faith?Based and Community Initiative.” Additional funding was provided by the PCCD through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Control and System Improvement program, and from the County’s general fund, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund, and various other government programs.
The majority of the funds was reportedly paid to Firm employees for wages and benefits.

The Firm identifies itself as a “prison ministry” and “faith based, non?profit organization,” and requires its employees to be “believers in Christ and Christian Life” who will “share these ideals when opportunity arises.” The Firm did not separate its government and private funds for secular and non?secular purposes, or attempt to provide documentation distinguishing how such funds were used.

Bradford County taxpayers Clark and Jane Moeller, Jeffrey Gonzalez, Laura Blain, Chris Schwenke and former prisoner Tim Thurston (plaintiffs) filed suit against the County, PCCD director Michael Kane and acting director Carol Lavery, U.S. Attorney General (AG) Alberto Gonzales, and the Firm (defendants). They alleged that the defendants’ participation in the award or receipt of government funds used for religious purposes violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Declaration of Rights § 3 and Article III § 29.

The plaintiffs argued that the Firm’s Christian?only hiring policy was discriminatory, that the Firm forced jail prisoners to participate in religious activities to obtain vocational training (as in Thurston’s case), and that a substantial amount of the “training” involved prayer and worship lectures. The plaintiffs claimed that the County, PCCD and AG had violated the Establishment Clause by failing to adequately monitor the government funds provided to the Firm. They also stated that as taxpayers they objected to and were offended by the government’s funding and support of the Firm’s blatant religious programming, and sought injunctive and declaratory relief as well as nominal damages, recoupment, and attorney fees and costs.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania approved a consent agreement that dismissed with prejudice the claims against Kane, the Firm, the County and AG Gonzales, as well as the claims brought by Thurston. The agreement stipulated that no government funds would be used to support religious programs, or would be given to entities with religious employment requirements or that discriminate for religious reasons. The consent agreement provides that religious?based entities must keep their religious activities separate from publicly-funded operations and must maintain separate accounts for government funding, and that government funds be monitored for compliance. In the event the terms of the agreement are violated, the plaintiffs are entitled to receive attorney fees and costs. See: Moeller v. Bradford County, U.S.D.C. (MD Pa.), Case No. 05?00334; 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7965 (Feb. 5, 2007).

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Related legal case

Moeller v. Bradford County

The complaint and settlement are available in the brief bank.