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Unholy alliance 

As the White House tries to make it even easier for tax dollars to flow to religious organizations, Aimee Bellmore's lawsuit against the United Methodist's Children Home in Decatur may stand in the way

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"Alan Yorker was a victim of that policy," says Susan Sommer, a lawyer at Lambda Legal's national headquarters in New York and the lead attorney in the Bellmore case. "Aimee Bellmore was a victim of the same religious-based hiring litmus test. Because she didn't adhere to the religious beliefs of UMCH, she was fired. In their eyes, it was no different than belonging to a different religious denomination."

What's more, Sommer says, just because the home has a religious affiliation doesn't exempt it from federal laws. "Because the UMCH is substantially government funded, it can no longer hide behind the shield of being a religious institution. If it wants to accept government money, then it has to play by the rules of any government-funded institution."

According to the home's own budget numbers offered up in the lawsuit, the home has received between $1 million and $1.3 million each of the last three years from the "government." Most of that, undoubtedly, is traceable back to individual county Department of Family and Children Services offices, which refer children to the home.

"I'm hoping the state will require the UMCH and any other social services agency like it to stop engaging in religious indoctrination and hiring discrimination," Sommer says.

As similar as Bellmore's case might be to Pedreira's, there is at least one noticeable difference: Bellmore's attorneys have behind them the weight, such as it is, of the Georgia state constitution, which states: "No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution."

Citing the lawsuit, the state Department of Human Resources declined comment.

When "charitable choice" legislation was passed in 1996, the bill's authors sought to ease the concerns of those worried about abridging the First Amendment's Establishment clause, which guarantees that church and state will be kept separate. If the government is contracting with a religious-based organization, it has to provide potential clients with a secular alternative. What's more, government funds can't be used to proselytize.

"How can you believe that?" asks Robert Boston, director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "What is proselytizing? It could be as subtle as a crucifix on a wall of a homeless center. Another person may say, 'I don't mind that, but if they make me pray, that's going too far.'"

Indeed, one of the contentions in Bellmore's lawsuit is that United Methodist Children's Home requires that all the children it serves -- regardless of their religion or ethnicity -- to participate in "Methodist services and training." Youths interested in other religious views, the lawsuit claims, are encouraged to read Bibles provided by the home. Again, Puckett, the home's spokesman, declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

While charitable choice was passed under the Clinton administration, the former president never seemed too enthusiastic about the idea, Boston says. "But a much more activist spirit is coming out of this administration. Administration officials are coming in and talking to religious groups about how to apply for federal grants."

It isn't just the secular crowd worried about the mingling of church and state. Some religious leaders, including Jerry Falwell, fret that opening the federal dollar spigot will compromise their own independence.

And in Congress, some lawmakers wonder whether charitable choice is necessary at all. If the idea is to level the playing field, then aren't religious organizations given an unfair advantage by not being expected to play by the same rules of hiring? And if what's being funded by the government is the secular aspect of their work, why should a religious group object to hiring non-believers?

As much of a mandate as President Bush thinks he may have on the issue, he might consider a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center. While 75 percent either favored or strongly favored allowing churches and other houses of worship to apply for government funding for social services, 78 percent said religious organizations using government funds for social services should not be allowed to hire only people who share their religious beliefs. Clearly, Americans want to strike a fine balance.

"Generally, people are more liberal than they think," Boston says. "They're more open-minded than you think. Most people have a live-and-let-live philosophy."

After she was fired from United Methodist Children's Home, Bellmore talked to more lawyers, poked around for another job, and finally decided to return to Oregon, where her mother was ailing with cancer. Last winter, she flew to Guatemala, where she'd studied years before, to brush up on her Spanish. It was also, she says, a perfect time to get away. For five months, she lived in Quetzaltenango, a city of 250,000 nestled in the Sierra Madres, 8,000 feet above sea level. Besides brushing up on her Spanish, she taught English to inmates at a women's prison.
Plotting her return trip back to Oregon, where she's now living, she arranged a layover in Atlanta so she could be in town when the lawsuit was filed. A press conference was held two Thursdays ago, but the collapsing billboard of Snellville pushed Bellmore's lawsuit to the bottom of local TV newscasts. The daily paper didn't seem interested.

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