Separate functions

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County approves grant app despite concerns about faith-based organization

PINEDALE – The Sublette County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday and approved the grant application for county organizations assisting needy families, including The Family Tree – A Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC).

On April 3, a handful of citizens sent county officials a letter questioning the legality of tax dollars going to the PRC – a faith-based organization.

“One of our biggest concerns is separating church and state, and (using) taxpayer money to fund a church-based or a Christ-based organization,” said Ann McNerney on Tuesday.

The letter – signed by five county citizens, including McNerney – argued that the using federal money to fund the PRC “is in direct violation of both the Wyoming and United States Constitutions and should cease immediately.”

The group grant is through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which gives money to states that is divvied up to organizations that provide qualifying services, including assistance to needy families, job preparation, life skills programs, needy children, work programs, marriage programs, and the prevention of out of wedlock pregnancies, among others.

“These are all ‘pass through’ funds … to the state of Wyoming – federal money passing through to the state,” explained Robin Clover, the director of SAFV and the point person on the four-way grant.

In Sublette County, four organizations are currently using TANF funds – SAFV (Sexual Assault and Family Violence), PRC, Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS), and High Country Behavioral Health (HCBH) – and the time has come to renew the grant.

“The amount of money we’re requesting from the state for the federal money is $50,000,” said Clover.

Of that $50,000, SAFV is seeking about $19,000, PRC about $17,000, HCBH about $8,000 and BBBS about $4,000.

But the group of concerned citizens argued that the PRC shouldn’t be receiving any money.

“We’re really concerned about the funding that TANF has for The Family Tree,” said McNerney, later wondering if the organization should qualify. “Are they meeting the criteria (for federal funding? Are they reducing the out-of-wedlock pregnancies?”

According to Tom Peters, who is chairman of the PRC board, the question of reduced pregnancies is “a difficult number to dive into and quantify.”

Clover, who’s been the a TANF administrator for more than a decade, added that the number of pregnancies and the number of sexually transmitted diseases have come down, which could align with PRC’s programming in schools at both ends of the county and a message of abstinence.

What’s more, the TANF funds require strict federal standards and reporting requirements, and PRC fits the bill.

“We’re just following what the feds say we can do with those funds,” Clover said.

County deputy attorney Matt Gaffney concurred, pointing to the federal law that prohibits the use of tax dollars for “inherent religious activities,” which includes religious activities and proselytizing. However, as long as the social-service functions are separated out, tax dollars can be used to support those activities.

“In my mind, you have to separate out those two functions,” Gaffney said. “And if you do so, those faith-based organizations are eligible for public funding.”

SAFV often works in mutual support of needy clients with the PRC, and according to Clover, her organization has “never had a client complain that they felt religious beliefs were a part of the services or preaching or that sort of thing.”

The county, too, has not received any such reports.

“We don’t have any information that’s being violated,” Gaffney said. “If we did, I think we’d reconsider the TANF grant.”

When asked to clarify what constitutes a faith-based organization, board chair Peters pointed to “certain faith principles” that guide and motivate the organization but do not limit its reach.

“Our faith does not inform our boundaries,” Peters said. “Anybody can come in. Anybody can come in.”

The commissioners then approved the grant application, 4-0, with commissioner Tom Noble absent.

For more on the meeting, including a visit by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, see Tuesday’s Examiner.

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