Despite Bible Studies, Pregnancy Center Wins Reversal of Denied Government Loan
A hearing officer has ruled that a Christian pregnancy center should be allowed to apply for a government loan to renovate its building, even though the center routinely engages in religious speech.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) previously denied a Care Net pregnancy center's application to its Community Facilities Loan Program because the center wants to offer clients optional Bible classes in one of its rooms. But now the USDA Appeals Division has determined that Care Net is eligible for a loan to renovate its facility because its religious speech is voluntary.
The Community Facilities Loan Program cannot support inherently religious activities, though faith-based organizations are not automatically disqualified from receiving loans.
The pregnancy center fought the loan denial and filed suit against the USDA in 2012. The USDA argued that it was "unable to realistically separate the eligible activities from the inherently religious activities either by time or space, thereby creating an excessive entanglement between government and religion."
The judge remanded the case to the USDA Appeals Division, which found that Care Net "is not seeking government funds to subsidize religious education or instruction; rather, it seeks a government loan for capital improvements to a building," according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Care Net in its suit.
Religion Clause highlighted the hearing officer's reasoning on the First Amendment issues:
Agency would have found Appellant eligible for the Program loan so long as Appellant keeps religious speech out of the building or segregated to a separate room – a literal religious gerrymander. Adopting Agency's approach would require any religious discussion, regardless of whether it were to be initiated by Appellant or its clients, to cease and for the participants of that discussion to pause, leave the facility or room, and travel elsewhere to reengage in the discussion. This effect is more than an incidental burden on a particular religious practice or belief: it is significant pressure, which will almost certainly cause clients to end prematurely or avoid any religious discussion altogether. Such a burden would facilitate a "chilling effect" on such discussion....