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Feds slam council, Lutheran synod for bringing religion into programs for victims of violence

BISMARCK - A partnership involving a Lutheran synod in North Dakota ran afoul of federal regulations when it brought religion into a federally funded program that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the U.S. Department of Ju...

BISMARCK – A partnership involving a Lutheran synod in North Dakota ran afoul of federal regulations when it brought religion into a federally funded program that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the U.S. Department of Justice found in a highly critical report finalized this month.

The missteps included a guide that urged faith leaders to offer to help victims reconnect with their faith and to “reassure her it is not her fault nor God’s will,” according to the report released Nov. 4 by the Office for Civil Rights within the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs.

Information received in October 2014 led the civil rights office to review the nonprofit North Dakota Council on Abused Women’s Services, or CAWS, for not following a federal regulation banning use of federal funds for religious activities in DOJ-funded groups.

Bismarck attorney Timothy Purdon, who stepped down as U.S. attorney for North Dakota in March and was retained by the council to help respond to the draft report it received in August, said the council has accepted all of the report’s findings and has completed most of the needed training.

“Folks want to get this right,” he said after the council’s board of directors reviewed the final report for the first time Monday morning.

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The report says the council and its contractor, the Western North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, were not in “substantial compliance” with the Equal Treatment for Faith-Based Organizations regulation. The regulation stems from a 2001 executive order signed by President George W. Bush that aimed to put faith-based organizations on equal footing with other groups when competing for federal funding.

Western Synod Bishop Mark Narum said there was no attempt to skirt the regulation.

“Everything that they’re asking for in this report is easily doable, and we have absolutely no problems with the compliance,” he said. “I think the issue is of not understanding or misreading the regs.”

 

Training not provided

The council is spending part of a three-year, $910,044 award from the federal Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) to help rural faith-based communities better respond to domestic violence and sexual assault.

It contracted with the synod for $97,470 to administer the initiative, led by coordinator Desireé Uhrich, an associate pastor at First Lutheran Church in Bottineau, who is referenced in the report only by her title.

After a review, the Office for Civil Rights concluded that the council and synod failed to provide adequate training about the regulation to employees and contractors, including Uhrich.

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The report also found Uhrich used religious criteria to select speakers for events, specifically for a training titled “Called to Compassion: Faith-Based Response to Violence in the Home.” It included a session called “Healing the Spirit of Children.”

Uhrich “acknowledged that she only selected speakers who could talk about how the faith community impacted their journey and how they picture God; she excluded anyone who did not have a faith background,” the report states.

Uhrich declined to comment by phone Monday, referring questions to the council’s executive director, Janelle Moos.

Narum defended Uhrich, saying her “history is of being a person who … openly works with people who are of a variety of faiths and people who would claim no faith.”

The report said the council and synod must monitor her activities more carefully to ensure that events aren’t rooted in religion and speakers selected “without applying a religious litmus test.”

 

Guide had improper content

A guide Uhrich prepared for faith community leaders on how to care for victims of domestic violence provided helpful information but also included improper religious content, suggesting that a faith leader dealing with a victim should “assure (her) of God’s love and your commitment to walk with her” and “pray with her,” the report stated.

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The Office for Civil Rights learned that two people raised concerns in fall 2013 about the guide’s religious content, but a council manager ignored their concerns and instead submitted a draft of the document to the OVW for review, which approved it – though it wasn’t reviewed for compliance with the regulation, the report notes.

The council and synod must remove the references to religion if they want to continue using the guide in connection with OVW-funded programs, it states.

 

Time not tracked properly

The partners also failed to sufficiently track the time Uhrich spent between federally funded activities and secular activities, the report states.

After one council employee raised the issue, Uhrich complained to an unidentified council manager, who agreed with her and sent the employee an email stating, “This request is too burdensome for a contractor,” the report states.

Even after receiving training on the regulation, the manager continued to suggest that aspect of the regulation was unnecessary and unimportant, the report states, calling the response “bewildering.”

The council began requiring Uhrich to complete a more detailed timekeeping report starting Oct. 1.

 

Screened for religion?

The report also found that religion was improperly used to determine who should benefit from certain federally-funded services.

It was particularly critical of how Uhrich had screened applicants for Life After Fear, a group of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

“She knows that all the members are Christian, and that many of them include religious content in the messages they deliver at OVW-funded events,” the report states, adding, “Indeed, an interviewee suggested to the OCR that survivors who do not share the religious views of current LAF members are dissuaded from becoming members themselves.”

Narum said he understood that the survivors group involves both Christians and non-Christians, “and I think that was a piece that was overlooked in this report.”

If the council and synod keep supporting the group with federal funds, “they should make a concerted effort to recruit members who have a variety of perspectives and religious backgrounds,” the report recommends.

 

CAWS ‘extremely cooperative’

During Monday’s board meeting in Bismarck, DOJ attorney Christopher Zubowicz reviewed federal regulations and commended the council.

“CAWS has been extremely cooperative in terms of responding to our recommendations, so we really appreciate that,” he said.

Moos, the council’s executive director, said the contract with the synod remains in place and Uhrich is still the initiative coordinator. She said it’s unknown if the council will seek additional grant funding or continue to contract with the synod after the current grant expires Sept. 30.

Beyond implementing the report’s recommendations, “We have no plans on really changing anything at this time,” she said.

Purdon said the goal is to get the review closed by mid-spring.

Read the report:  http://ojp.gov/about/ocr/pdfs/14-OCR-0101_11062015.pdf

 

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