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Tax Dollars for Pregnancy Centers Raise Church-State Questions

A decision last year by the Texas Legislature to divert $5 million from family-planning services to programs that promote childbirth over abortion is raising questions of whether tax dollars are being used to fund a pro-life gospel.

The North American Mission Board views the more than 100 Crisis Pregnancy Centers in 27 states that have chosen to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention as “outreach” ministries resourced through its Community Evangelism division.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In all, there are an estimated 3,000 such centers nationwide, which provide support for women with unplanned pregnancies who choose not to abort. Many contain an evangelistic component.
 
Federal law prohibits use of government funds to pay for religious instruction, proselytization, worship, prayer and other religious activities. It also prohibits public funding of programs that are “pervasively” religious, or so permeated by religion that their secular side from their religious side.
 
Yet Crisis Pregnancy Centers have been a major beneficiary of President Bush’s faith-based initiative, receiving grants to produce abstinence-only sex education programs for schools and staffing and equipment for counseling services to promote childbirth over abortion.
 
Last year <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Texas reallocated $12 million in family planning funds–including a huge cut for Planned Parenthood–for “women seeking alternatives to abortion focused on pregnancy support services that promote childbirth.”
 
For Planned Parenthood–which didn’t qualify for the funds because it presents all legal options, including abortion and contraception as well as abstinence, when counseling women and couples seeking their services–it has meant loss of funding for women’s health services like diabetes treatment, mammograms and cancer screenings.
 
$5 million of the diverted money is going to two Crisis Pregnancy Centers, to be spent over two years.
 
One, The Heidi Group of Round Rock, is unabashedly religious. “Our most important work is prayer,” says one statement on the group’s Web site.
 
“When women choose life for their babies, the Gospel is also shared and, as many come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the culture of our state and nation will change. To God be the Glory!” writes Carol Everett, a former “pregnancy termination provider,” and now founder and CEO of The Heidi Group.
 
According to the IRS, The Heidi Group took in just under $730,000 in revenue in 2003, the most recent year with records on file. Everett was paid a salary of $72,782.
 
Two years ago the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission partnered with Everett, a member of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, for the Psalm 139 Project to raise funds to purchase sonograms for Crisis Pregnancy Centers, based on belief that women who see into their wombs via high-resolution ultrasound imaging are less likely to abort.
 
In a video testimony on The Heidi Group Web site, Everett claims she worked on commission to sell abortions to young women until she had a transforming experience with Christ. (She tells her story in book, titled Blood Money, which claims the abortion industry preys on women in crisis pregnancies for money.)
 
“We know the real answer is coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ,” Everett says in the video.” 
 
The Heidi Group partners with the Texas Association of Women’s Resource Organizations in its contract with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
 
Shirley Thompson, president of the Texas Association of Women’s Resource Organization, told the Associated Press that the contract prohibits state-funded religious proselytizing, but the Legislature set a clear goal of promoting childbirth over abortion.
 
“You can’t evangelize with government funding,” Thompson said. “(But) the Legislature saw the same desire to actively promote childbirth. The Heidi Group is already in that area of service and fits what the state was looking for.”
 
Thompson is also listed as executive director of Agape Pregnancy Help Center in San Antonio, which is included in a listing of Pregnancy Care Centers on NAMB’s Web site.
 
“The Agape Pregnancy Help Center is entirely funded by churches, private corporations and individual supporters who are sympathetic to our pro-life mission,” the group says on its Web site. “We receive absolutely no funding from state or federal agencies and are therefore unencumbered by the rules and regulations they impose.”
 
A blogger on talk2action.org, however, said given the openly stated evangelical mission of the Crisis Pregnancy Centers receiving money from Texas, “meeting the requirements of both the state program and federal law may present a bigger challenge than dissuading women from choosing abortion.”
 
Most church-sponsored pregnancy centers don’t receive federal funding, because doing so restricts their ability to share Christ, said a recent story in Baptist Press. Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, which has been on the Southern Baptist Convention denominational calendar since 1985, is viewed as a big fundraising push.
 
In 1984 the SBC passed a resolution encouraging all “institutions, cooperating churches, and members to work diligently to provide counseling, housing, and adoption placement services for unwed mothers with the specific intent of bringing them into a relationship with Jesus Christ and/or a sense of Christian responsibility.”
 
The SBC Home Mission Board began developing abortion-alternative ministries soon after Larry Lewis became president in 1987. He named Sylvia Boothe, a former foreign missionary and Crisis Pregnancy Center director, to help churches develop ministries to pregnant women.
 
The North American Mission Board, formed in a 1997 denominational reorganization, carried on the assignment through its Community Evangelism Unit. Elaine Ham leads the Pregnancy Care Ministries.
 
“Reaching those affected by abortion decisions is part of an overall evangelism strategy to train every member in the church to reach every person in the community of the church,” says the NAMB Web site. “An effective evangelism strategy will include numerous ministry-based evangelism and other training approaches.”
 
Last year, NAMB reported assisting 8,700 churches to “equip and engage believers in showing and sharing Christ in the real world,” through ministries such as literacy training, English as a second language classes, multicultural evangelism and establishment of Crisis Pregnancy Centers.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.