Action Alert: End Religious Harassment in Rehab

Imagine you or someone you love is desperately in need of alcohol rehabilitation services, and the only provider in the area is faith-based. Counseling sessions are held in a room containing crosses and scripture, but because the center receives federal funds, you know they are required to provide secular alcohol and addiction services.  After a few weeks of attending counseling sessions, you are invited by a church employee who is not a counselor to stay at the center for a Bible class held in the same building. As a nontheist, you politely refuse. The following week this same employee corners you after class and starts a long, awkward conversation about how you need to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You feel as though you cannot comfortably continue to attend this treatment center when you are forced to interact with this individual in the midst of your treatment. You tell your counselor, but you’re told that the law says there is nothing to be done.

Proselytizing to someone in the middle of addiction treatment – at a vulnerable moment -- is nothing less than harassment. Since legislation containing so-called “charitable choice” provisions were first enacted in 1996, anyone obtaining counseling at a faith-based substance abuse treatment center could be subject to this kind of treatment by church employees. While counselors are forbidden from proselytizing, there is no measure prohibiting employees or volunteers of a faith-based organization or religious institution from doing so before or after treatment.

Tell your senators to remove “charitable choice” provisions that allows religious organizations to proselytize to  people seeking counseling for substance abuse or mental health issues. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Act (SAMHSA) was just re-introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). Despite many behind-the-scenes meetings, Mr. Kennedy refused calls by the Secular Coalition for America to introduce this legislation with stronger protections for beneficiaries of social services. The Senate is now working on their version of SAMHSA and it’s important that they hear from you. Tell them to remove charitable choice provisions that allow proselytizing at federally-funded substance abuse and mental health centers—be they religious or not.

So-called “charitable choice” provisions also allow the direct funding of houses of worship with your tax dollars. They are given carte blanche to perform secular social services without having to separate taxpayer money from the funds they receive from their parishioners for strictly sectarian purposes. Before “charitable choice”, all religious institutions and faith-based organizations were required to set up separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations to which taxpayer money was directed. This money could then be audited by the federal government. Since 1996, faith-based organizations no longer have to allocate the money they receive from the federal government in a 501(c)3 – they can literally keep it in the same account as money from the collection plate!

It is often impossible to know whether houses of worship are using government funds for sectarian purposes, or whether they are really keeping this money separate. Moreover, IRS rules make it very difficult to audit houses of worship and the lack of 501(c)3s make it even more difficult to pinpoint corruption. If we must send federal dollars to faith-based organizations and religious institutions to perform social services, they must be held accountable for how they spend taxpayer’s dollars.

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