A 12-part Christian education series authored and promoted by Colorado-based Focus on the Family has been circulating around Iowa for the past few years. The program has been screened and discussed in local churches and private homes, but starting Monday the series will have its first screening in the state Capitol.
In an e-mail to supporters allegedly on behalf of Republican state Sen. Nancy Boettger of Harlan, Iowa Family Policy Center’s action arm announced that Senate Room 24 in the Iowa Capitol was reserved at 10 a.m. Monday, and at that same time for the remainder of the legislative session, for a showing of “The Truth Project.”
“The Truth Project” is a set of 12 DVD lessons, each one-hour in length, presented by Dr. Del Tackett and marketed by Focus on the Family. According to the project’s Web site, the series was a response to a study that indicated only about 9 percent of professing Christians have a “Biblical worldview.” The series, which is divided by topic, aims to retrain Christians on how to develop such a worldview and further inject the belief into the public sphere. Although the series has won acclaim in religious circles, it has also drawn a wealth of criticism, both for its focus on debunked scientific theories and for alleged misrepresentations of Christian doctrine.
The e-mail notice sent by the Iowa Family Policy Center noted in its subject line that it was sent “on behalf of Nancy Boettger,” and in the text that the Harlan Republican had “authorized” the group to announce the upcoming events in the Statehouse “with her hearty recommendation.”
Members of the Iowa legislature, according to a spokeswoman in the Iowa Senate Secretary’s office, can reserve rooms in the Capitol pretty much at any time and for any purpose. One of the benefits of being a legislator is the ability to bump other groups who have reserved space when a need arises. The spokeswoman, who was not the person who actually granted the request by Boettger, indicated that she was aware of Monday’s reservation but that she was not positive if the request for the 10 a.m. slot on every Monday for the remainder of the legislative session was something that was approved. At press time, The Iowa Independent had not yet received confirmation on whether the full series of reservations had been approved by the office.
It also unclear if an Iowa Senator can use their privilege to reserve space for several weeks on behalf of a non-governmental, third-party organization such as the Iowa Family Policy Center, which indicated in its e-mail to supporters that they should call the organization’s office to make reservations for the 10 a.m. meeting.
The use of taxpayer resources for a series so deeply rooted in a specific religious doctrine is an area where some of Iowa’s religious and non-religious organizations have found a common concern.
Connie Ryan Terrell has served as the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa since 2002. Despite her organization’s aim to promote the role of religion in public life, she also has reservations about this particular series being promoted and marketed through the Capitol.
“Certainly senators have a right to reserve rooms, and they do that a lot on behalf of other organizations,” she said. “But, to utilize a public building — especially in the middle of the legislative session when there are so many other important issues going on — it seems to me that this is a misuse of public property to promote one particular viewpoint and one particular group’s agenda — especially given that this is scheduled for so many times during the legislation session.”
Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, isn’t necessarily concerned that a state lawmaker is utilizing public space for this or any purpose, but does have concerns about the overall content of the religious educational series.
“On one hand, if rooms in the Iowa capitol are routinely used by outside groups for public events, then allowing the state affiliate of Focus on the Family to have access to one is not so unusual,” he said. “Having said that, I think Iowans ought to be concerned with the content of this presentation.”
Focus on the Family is a “theocratic outfit that seeks to use the government to impose its narrow version of fundamentalist Christianity on all of us,” Boston said, and “The Truth Project” asserts to have the only proper “Biblical worldview” and “arrogantly claims that most Christians in America aren’t really true believers — simply because many people disagree with [Focus on the Family] on political issues.”
“Focus on the Family and its state affiliates seek to destroy the wall of separation between church and state and elevate their version of the Christian faith — a version heavily weighed down with right-wing politics — above all others,” Boston said. “This attempt to destroy religious freedom should be of concern to Iowans of all religious and philosophical backgrounds.”
Boston is not alone in his concerns.
“I believe that utilizing government resources for this type of media presentation sends the message that the government of the State of Iowa prefers its citizens to be Christian,” said Michael Ireland, executive director of Iowa Secularists. “Establishing a preferred religion is clearly an inappropriate role for government.”
Terrell called the showing of “The Truth Project” at the capitol a “treacherous road to go down.”
“They have a right to put their view out there, but it is not inclusive of everyone,” she said. “And I think this mix of church and state, so-to-speak, is a treacherous road to go down. When they start putting their information out in the place where we make public decisions, that is perhaps a line that should not be crossed.”
Scott Fedler, treasurer of Iowa Secularists, said Focus on the Family and the Iowa Family Policy Center are free to distribute copies of their program to every legislator for them to view on their own time, but for them to be allowed to “set up a recurring appointment to show this movie, utilizing government resources and facilities, during legislative work hours, seems to be an endorsement by government and should not be continued.”