HHS ‘Reverses Course,’ Opens HIV Prevention Grants to Secular Organizations
After the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State criticized the government over $4 million in drug abuse and HIV prevention grants designated exclusively for faith-based groups, HHS officials "promptly" reversed the provision yesterday to allow secular groups to compete for the funding, the Associated Press reports. Americans United's Executive Director Barry Lynn sent a letter earlier this week to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson criticizing the funding standards, which was drawn up before President Bush took office. In the letter, Lynn said that the grant guidelines were "unconstitutional" because they excluded secular groups from competing for the funding and threatened to sue the agency if the application restrictions were not altered (Associated Press, 5/18). He also argued that the standards were "hypocritical" because they went against Bush's principle of "equal competition" between secular and religious-affiliated groups, which the president has "consistently stressed" when promoting his "faith-based initiative" program (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/17). After the letter was made public, White House officials yesterday "pressur[ed]" HHS to reconsider the funding standards, the AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. "Once it came to their attention and our attention, it needed to be adjusted," HHS spokesperson Tony Jewell said, adding that the agency "wanted to be in line with the president's principles" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5/18). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the HHS department issuing the grants, is "in the process of changing the grant process" to include secular groups, Jewell added.
SAMHSA spokesperson Mark Weber on Wednesday assured the Associated Press that the "legality" of the grant proposal guidelines was "absolutely" discussed before their issuance and added that the agency was "very aware of what's constitutional and what's not" (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 5/18). HHS officials said they attempted to "alert political appointees" at SAMHSA to the possible conflict over the grants, but "either nobody realized the grants would cause a stir or the message never broke through in the chaotic opening months" of the Bush administration. The grants were the agency's "first effort" to designate funds specifically for religious groups, which the agency "believe[d]" were in the "best position" to reach at-risk teens (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5/18). Congressional aides familiar with the grant process said such "strict set asides" are "common" for minoritiy and homosexual groups and therefore faith-based groups "shouldn't have any problem getting them" (Washington Times, 5/18). Lynn and others said regardless of whether secular groups are included in the grant competition, funding for religious groups "violates the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion." The American Jewish Congress, which is suing a California program that excludes secular groups, said it would have also filed a lawsuit against HHS had the agency not reversed its decision (Meckler, Associated Press, 5/17).