It was a dream of mine to have an organization devoted solely to saving broken marriages. After spending 25 years as an ordained minister, I took the first steps toward realizing that dream by starting the Northwest Marriage Institute in 2004. On faith, I gave up a regular paycheck and began trying to build an organization from the ground up. I started networking and developing relationships with potential donors, and did some marriage counseling. I even drove a delivery truck at nights just to make ends meet.
It was hard work and a strain on my family. But things eventually improved. In 2005, I learned about the Compassion Capital Fund, which President Bush created to help fund community service projects through thousands of grass-root organizations, including faith-based groups like mine. So I applied. That year I received two capacity-building grants totaling almost $100,000, which allowed me to build the organization’s infrastructure – I was able to buy essential equipment, hire consultants, and pay salaries to myself and my assistant. This allowed me to quit my truck-driving job and devote myself full time to the Northwest Marriage Institute.
By the next summer, I was enjoying a peace that I hadn’t felt in years. I had been asked to serve as a federal grant reviewer for the Department of Health and Human Services. The grants that I had received were going well. And I was in the process of obtaining a larger grant that would allow us to offer free marriage workshops to couples in the Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA area.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
On September 12, 2006, a radio show host in Washington D.C. asked to interview me about faith-based groups that had received federal grants. I was happy to oblige. We discussed normal questions about how faith-based groups had to keep their religious programs separate from those funded by the government. Then he dropped a bombshell: “Oh, by the way, did you know you’re being sued?”
I quickly hung up the phone. And it quickly rang again. This time it was a New York Times reporter calling about the lawsuit. After a brief conversation, the phone rang yet again. But this time it was Joel Oster, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. He said, “I understand you are being sued. We want to represent you.” A wave of relief came over me.
I was served with papers the next day. A group called the Americans United for Separation of Church of State was suing the Northwest Marriage Institute, the federal government, and another organization that helped administer the grants. The group claimed I was using government money to push religion on others. I read through the 19-page complaint and saw false charge after false charge. I knew I was going to be okay, but that I was going to be in for a fight.
And a fight it was. The group that filed the lawsuit not only wanted to prevent us from receiving any more grant money, but also wanted me to return the money that I had already received. Everything I had worked for was on the line.
So over the next few months, I worked with Joel and another ADF attorney, Tim Chandler, to mount our defense. We put together every piece of information that I had concerning the Northwest Marriage Institute. Every newsletter, every email, every bank statement, every report, and every grant proposal had to be collected.
I learned early in this process that I needed to talk to God constantly. My relationship with him grew, and I had a strong sense of peace in the midst of all the chaos. But I was still concerned about what the judge would do.
March 13, 2007 was the deadline for us to submit our defense to the judge. I remember asking Tim how long it would take to get a decision, and he thought it would take several months. The next week my phone was silent. It was eerie. It was impossible for me not to worry, and I was preparing myself for a long wait while our case was in the hands of the judge.
Seven days later, Tim called. He said, “It’s over…we won!” I cried. And I praised God. The judge issued a summary judgment in our favor and dismissed the entire case.
With ADF, I literally had an army of lawyers walking with me. Their wisdom, confidence, and gentle manner made the worst time of my life bearable. I wish I had never gone through it. I don’t wish it on anyone. But I’m so glad Joel, Tim, and all the others at ADF were there by my side.
In the three years since we won the case, the Northwest Marriage Institute has served over 1,600 married couples with free marriage workshops in retreat settings. And we’ve had people from all over the country – including other grantee organizations and representatives from government grant programs – come to Portland to see why we have been so successful in operating this government-funded program.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?