Ayesha Khan (Photo: CNN.com)

In another legal challenge to faith-based funding, a secular watchdog group is suing the Bush administration for allegedly bankrolling “Bible-based” marriage counseling.

The lawsuit was filed by a Muslim activist and liberal attorney working for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. Ayesha N. Khan is legal director for the nonprofit group.

If successful, the suit could have a chilling effect on faith-based funding.

At stake are more than $750 million in marriage-related education and research grants the federal government plans to spend over the next five years.

The case “has the potential to be quite significant,” George Washington University law professor Robert Tuttle said in a recent interview. He is an expert on President Bush’s initiative to allocate more federal dollars to faith-based organizations.

Specifically, the potentially landmark suit seeks to block current and future funding for the Northwest Marriage Institute, which allegedly advocates religious beliefs that “derive from a specific form of biblical literalism particular to fundamentalist Christianity,” according to pages 14 and 15 of the lawsuit, filed last year in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington state.

In addition to the Vancouver, Wash.-based institute, the suit names Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt as a defendant. HHS already has paid out two grants totaling almost $100,000 to the institute and has awarded an additional grant expected to total $1.25 million over five years.

Under new federal guidelines, religious groups aren’t barred from receiving such grants. But the money can be used only for secular purposes, not “worship, religious instruction or proselytization.”

The director of the Northwest Marriage Institute says he is well aware of the rules and has not violated them.

“We are squeaky clean in this matter,” Bob Whiddon Jr. told the Christian Chronicle. “Those that have filed suit did not do their homework. They have assumed a lot of things that are not true. The truth will come out and show their ignorance.”

Whiddon served as pulpit minister at the Eastside Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., for nearly 10 years before starting the marriage institute in 2004. The Church of Christ follows a literal interpretation of Scripture.

Whiddon conducts the premarital and marriage-counseling seminar at the institute, including counseling married or engaged couples in his office. His secretary, Deborah Hubbell, handles financial and fund-raising duties.

Whiddon is also a staff counselor in the Sumner, Wash., office of the Agape Counseling Center, a Christian counseling and training center. Hubbell also serves as the office manager and secretary of a church in Portland, according to the lawsuit.

“The government’s financing of and support for the Marriage Institute have the primary effect of advancing religion,” the Americans United lawsuit claims. “Governmental cash aid is being delivered directly into the coffers of a religious organization.”

Whiddon insists none of the HHS funds were spent for religious purposes but were used to pay for computers and supplies, as well as website and financial consultants, to “increase the capacity” of the institute to serve clients, who are charged $200 for weekend retreats on “Building Healthy Marriages.”

The lawsuit, filed on the docket as Christianson vs. Leavitt, claims the funds also are used to pay employee salaries.

“The Marriage Institute and all its programs and services are thoroughly religious,” the suit charges, citing the institute’s mission statement that it exists to provide “Bible education in marriage and related subjects, and to provide professional, Bible-based pre-marital and marriage counseling.”

It also says it works to promote “successful biblical principles for everyday life,” and has a religious agenda of taking “biblical marriage counseling” to the many “unchurched” in the Pacific Northwest.

Whiddon counters that the institute has developed a curriculum for the non-religious presentation of workshops and refers to major secular research on healthy marriages that happen to share biblical principles.

“A lot of the principles are still the same because they work,” he asserted.

But Americans United argues the institute cites God and the Bible in counseling against premarital sex, while encouraging wives submit to their husbands and maintain a “quiet spirit.” It cites both the institute’s website and newsletter as evidence of what it calls “fundamentalist dogma.”

It also maintains that the institute’s logo of an ambulance with a red cross and the words “Every Marriage Saved!” is “intended to convey an explicitly religious message.”

Americans United singled out HHS for rebuke in not monitoring and auditing the institute’s program for Christian content. It claims HHS has violated the constitutional ban against government promoting religion and seeks a permanent injunction stopping HHS from funding or supporting the Marriage Institute, while demanding the institute return all grant money plus interest.

The secular watchdog group’s legal director, Khan, has also argued for the removal of “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance because she says it “prevents many immigrants outside the Judeo-Christian tradition from participating in this fundamental ritual of American patriotism.”

Khan, meanwhile, has threatened to sue school districts over their ban on Muslim headscarves to conform to their dress codes of no hats, caps, bandannas or other headgear. She argued in a recent Oklahoma case that a Muslim girl was “simply complying with her religious faith by wearing a hijab.”

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