The University of Minnesota has come under fire from a Madison-based group dedicated to ensuring the separation of church and the state. The non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit Friday in the federal court system challenging the university’s use of public funds to support the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium.
According to the consortium’s website, the MFHC is a collaborative effort between Fairview Health Services, Luther Seminary, the UM Health Center and the Consortium of Minnesota Seminaries created to promote healthier communities through the integration of health and faith initiatives.
However, FFRF is arguing UM’s actions breach the separation of church and state guaranteed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
According to a FFRF release, UM has violated the clause because state taxpayer funds have helped fund a faith-based organization, whose “religious objective is indivisible from any secular objective.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of FFRF’s Freethought Today newspaper, said FFRF members often think religion is the root of many government-related issues, and faith-based organizations, like the MHFC, should be supported privately.
“We are pushing an agenda — we want to overturn the faith-based initiatives [and] we want to go back to the way it was only a few years ago,” Gaylor said. “That worked for years and years.”
However, according to University of Wisconsin professor of political science Donald Downs, UM’s position could be legitimate since religion is one part of the pluralism and viewpoints in society. Two extreme schools of thought in the United States exist when combating the issue, Downs added.
One suggests the state should be promoting religious activities even though it is a violation. The other suggests the state should not be involved at all, but that could be looked at as discriminating against religion, according to Downs.
“You have to look for a balance,” Downs said.
UW professor emeritus of law Gordon Baldwin said many of the details lying in the UM case will depend on the details of the situation.
“The very fact that a religious group gets some [government] assistance does not flunk it,” Baldwin said. “Looking down the line I see a more tolerant attitude toward government involvement with religious groups.”
However, the FFRF, an organization started in 1976 that has members in every state in the United States, has successfully challenged similar incidents in the past. In its most recent victory, FFRF successfully won a similar federal lawsuit against the Montana Office of Rural Health. The MORH had given more than $1 million in taxes to the Montana Faith Health Cooperative.
According to FFRF spokesperson Dan Barker, the UM case is similar to the Montana case and the FFRF will have the benefit of having the same lawyer who worked on that case.
“[People] don’t want the government meddling with their religion anymore than the government should be meddled with by the religious,” Barker said.
UM spokesperson Dan Wolter said the university has not been delivered the lawsuit and cannot comment on it until after it is served.