- Photo by Miriam Raftery / East County Magazine
San Diego County has halted payment of a $20,000 grant to a pro-life organization’s annual fundraiser while county attorneys investigate whether the money raised is used to fund religious educational materials.
CityBeat originally published evidence of the religious activities in July. E-mails obtained since then indicate that county staff also had questions about the religious nature of the organization’s programs prior to approving the grant but did not pursue the matter.
The grant, which would fund La Mesa-based Life Perspectives’ Life Walk event, was sponsored by San Diego County Supervisor Bill horn. Through a Public Records Act request, CityBeat has learned that four days before the Board of Supervisors voted on the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program grant, horn’s policy advisor, Caylin Guerin, sent Life Perspectives President Michaelene Fredenburg an e-mail asking whether the group’s “mission has a religious slant.”
Fredenburg did not answer the question directly and instead provided a boilerplate statement declaring that Life Perspectives is registered as a “non-religious non-profit” and that all proceeds from the Life Walk—an estimated $125,000—go toward “student programs in both public and private schools.” In public schools, the group’s efforts involve a non-religious documentary about teen pregnancy; in private schools, they take the form of the Whole Life Curriculum, she wrote.
CityBeat’s July investigative report showed that the Whole Life Curriculum is religious in nature, espousing “a worldview that’s rooted in the heart of God and the value He imparts to human life,” according to literature posted online.
Life Perspectives described its work in markedly different terms in its application for county money, stating that its programs are designed to “empower students to make healthy choices” and equip them with “critical thinking, goal-setting and decision making skills.” There was no mention of religion.
County Counsel John Sansone tells CityBeat via e-mail that county staff review these applications but don’t investigate the claims before allowing the grants to come before the supervisors for a vote. Although there were questions about whether the group had a “religious slant,” Sansone says that was not enough to stop the grant at that time.
“When information came to light that [Life Perspectives] may not be spending the funds raised in a manner that is entirely consistent with what it stated in its application, I determined to conduct an investigation to find out more specifically and concretely what the facts are,” Sansone says.
The grant is now frozen; Sansone says he expects the investigation to conclude within the next week.
To date, the county has paid more than $60,000 to sponsor Life Walk in 2008 and 2009. At horn’s request, the county also spent $10,000 in 2006 and 2007 to underwrite Life Perspectives’ fundraising galas.
David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, says the grants seem to violate provisions in the California Constitution that bar public money from being spent on religious activities. He says the county could and should have double-checked Life Perspectives’ claims before authorizing the grants.
“Life Perspectives hasn’t been exactly forthcoming about its mission, and it’s not that hard to find out what it is,” Blair-Loy says. “My concern is that the county was at least negligent or perhaps willfully blind in approving the grant…. I don’t think it’s sufficient to ask if they are religious and they say, ‘No, we’re not,’ and then say, ‘Here’s your money.’” In a written statement provided to television stations, horn denied allegations that the county had crossed the line separating church and state.
“CityBeat’s accusations are entirely based on the inaccurate assumption that the county is sponsoring a curriculum that is designed to be used in private, religious schools, but not a single penny of taxpayer funds can or will go toward that use,” horn writes. “If you look at the Life Walk website, there is no religious proselytizing going on and county auditors will ensure taxpayer dollars do not go toward religious purposes.”
The current Life Walk website does not have any references to religion, but the website for the previous year’s event does. For example, the event’s official pledge form bears the county emblem, credits horn as a sponsor and includes testimonials with religious language.
In the “What We Do” section of the fundraising form, Nativity Prep Academy Principal Brendan Sullivan is among those quoted, saying, “Whole Life Curriculum fills this need: teaching students to understand how to relate others and keeping God and God’s love at the center of those relationships—with family, friends and themselves.”
According to records maintained by the county auditor’s office, this pledge form was paid for with county dollars.
Fredenburg did not answer questions from CityBeat about the religious nature of the organization, but it is clear that some members do define it as religious.
“I work for a group educating youth to make life affirming choices that reflect the value that God places on their lives and the lives of others,” Linda Noble, Life Perspectives vice president and author of the Whole Life Curriculum, describes her job on her Facebook page. Noble is married to a pastor at Journey Community Church, which, according to Fredenburg, rents office space to Life Perspectives.
In the week after the grant was approved, Fredenburg sent an e-mail to “Life Perspectives Insiders,” introducing Noble. The e-mail explained that Life Perspectives plans to partner with 10 Christian schools in San Diego County during the 2011-2012 academic year to present the Whole Life Curriculum to K-8 students. horn’s office received this e-mail prior his denial of the religious connection.
Life Perspectives claims that it also provides non-religious programs to public schools, which revolves around a 30-minute documentary, Teen Pregnancy: Real Lives, Real Choices. Fredenburg would not provide CityBeat with a list of public schools that benefitted from Life Perspectives programs.
In its literature last year, Life Perspectives cited unnamed “health teachers” at two local public schools, Monte Vista High School and Fallbrook Union High School, as endorsing the group’s secular program. Both schools tell CityBeat they did not receive Life Perspectives presentations in the 2009-2010 school year.
Monte Vista principal Randy Montesanto says the school has not had health teachers for several years, that the staff has not heard of the group and that the school would not approve such a program. When Fallbrook Union requested a speaker, Life Perspectives said that “our availability as far as sending speakers is incredibly limited for now.”
Life Perspectives also operates the website AbortionChangesYou.com, a non-religious outreach campaign that has included a subway poster campaign in New York. Fredenburg says that no Life Walk money has been used for this project.
“We have been impressed with the level of detail and documentation required by the County to prove that grant monies are spent exclusively on the Life Walk,” Fredenburg writes. “Life Perspectives has meticulously fulfilled all the requirements surrounding the receipt of these grants as set forth by the County of San Diego.”
Blair-Loy says there’s little difference between the county funding Life Walk and funding the Whole Life Curriculum.
“Covering the cost of fundraising is tantamount to giving a direct donation,” Blair- Loy says. “It’s basically increasing the net profit they make at the fundraiser. If the county didn’t fund that overhead, they would have to cover it themselves.”