A critic who doesn't believe the government should be stepping into marriages said he would keep a close eye on how these groups spend the funds.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced Thursday more than $2.2 million in grants to 12 states and a variety of religious, nonprofit and tribal organizations to advance the nation's child support enforcement system. Roughly $550,000 is being spent on programs that emphasize the importance of healthy marriage.
Among them are two organizations and a state agency that emphasize the importance of a healthy marriage to a child's well being.
The Marriage Coalition, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, received $199,994 to test a curriculum for poor single parents that emphasizes the value of marriage and child support.
In Allentown, Pa., a group called Community Services for Children Inc. got $177,373 to work with local church groups in providing marriage education and other services to unwed couples.
But a wary Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wondered who would ensure that the programs receiving government grants aren't violating the separation of church and state law.
"Whether a person gets married or stays married is none of the government's business," Boston said. "It feels paternalistic for government to be interfering."
President Bush, bypassing a reluctant Congress, signed executive orders last month that put parts of his faith-based initiative in motion. His steps help give religious organizations more of a chance to win federal contracts for a variety of social services.
President Bush said, however, that no government money "will be used to directly support inherently religious activities," an assertion that has not satisfied skeptics.
The government has promoted marriage in the past, primarily through the 1996 welfare overhaul, but it has faced restrictions in giving money to religious organizations to advance that same goal.
Some Democrats in Congress and others object to the prospect that church groups will use the tax dollars to proselytize, and in doing so violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
"Some of these groups don't realize that they are supposed to run a secular program," Boston said. "When they take taxpayer money it can't be business as usual."
Sherri Z. Heller, commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement, said the grants were approved long before Bush's executive order on faith-based initiatives.
"Courts, nonprofits, state agencies are all discovering that reaching out to local faith-based organizations is an effective strategy for making their programs work with populations that have been very difficult to reach, such as fathers coming out of prisons," Heller said.
Marriage Coalition Director Sandra Bender described her group as "a nonprofit organization of inter-religious clergy, mental health professionals and individuals dedicated to reducing the divorce rate and birth to unmarried parents through education."
The group, which advocates marriage, is not a religious organization, Bender said, but it does train clergy and counselors to help engaged and wedded couples.
"People go to churches. Seventy-five percent of people who get married get married at churches so that's where our customers are," Bender said.
In another grant aimed at strengthening marriage, the Alabama Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board got $200,000 to help poor, ethnically diverse single parents learn marital skills, improve their employment prospects and increase child support payments.
The Special Improvement Grants cover a range of family counseling and child support collection programs.
The goal is to "increase child support collections, promote fatherhood and healthy marriage, and help struggling families take care of their children," Thompson said.
By Siobhan McDonough