Influential Focus on the Family affiliate both a critic, former recipient of federal funding for social issues

Image by Matt MahurinProvided South Carolina’s GOP can raise enough money to host the coveted first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary, the state will significantly impact which Republican is nominated to face off with President Obama in 2012. A South Carolina conservative policy group, the Palmetto Family Council, has seized on this spotlight to communicate its top issues to the 2012 presidential contenders; issues the group has influenced in past state debates all while receiving federal money to aid their case.

No serious GOP candidate can risk avoiding South Carolina and its influential players. As the Washington Post recently reported, South Carolina’s Republican primary has “accurately predicted the GOP presidential nominee for the past three decades, often in campaigns that revolved around guns, God and gays.” Thus far in the race, the state has been host to the first GOP debate and the debut of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign, in Myrtle Beach.

Recently, Palmetto Family Council (PFC), a Focus on the Family affiliate, sent candidates a challenge, accompanied by an indicators report (PDF), showing that South Carolina’s crime and welfare rates are exceeding the national average, which PFC President Oran Smith attributes to reduced rates of heterosexual marriage within the state.

“Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, what will you do as president to help us rebuild our families? We need your help and leadership,” said Smith in the statement sent to candidates.

So why should the presidential hopefuls be concerned with appealing to the Palmetto Family Council? Because the state listens to the group.

Since it formed in 1994, PFC has pushed a political agenda relative to its conservative Christian attitudes, especially on issues related to marriage and abortion rights. A featured link on Palmetto’s homepage jumps to a reprint from the Columbia, S.C.-based Christian magazine Reach Out Columbia, which lists 24 state legislative issues that the group was “actively involved in” between 2005 and 2008. The top issue on the list is the constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage between gay men and lesbians that was passed in 2007. In 2006, Palmetto stated its “top priority” was South Carolina’s anti-marriage-equality amendment.

Increasing PFC’s influence, some of the organization’s board members are connected politically, Chad Connelly in particular. In May, Connelly was elected chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Connelly, like most of PFC’s board members, also serves on the board of PFC’s lobbying arm, Palmetto Family Alliance.

President Oran Smith has been a critic of groups with social agendas using public money, when it comes to agendas he disagrees with. Last year, Smith was particularly outraged when the city of Columbia installed rainbow flags leading up to the South Carolina pride parade. Following the debate earlier this year on the 2011 federal budget, Smith praised the U.S. House GOP for trying to strip Planned Parenthood of federal family-planning funding. He criticized the South Carolina legislature for not removing family-planning funding from the state budget. In a blog post dated May 11, Smith wrote: “Last week, Democrats fooled the GOP into believing that banning state taxpayer funded abortion in the state health plan would ‘endanger billions in federal Medicaid funds’ until Americans United for Life and the Department of Health & Human Services set the record straight.”

Yet, in recent years, Palmetto Family has also received federal grants to develop abstinence-education programs. As The American Independent previously reported, PFC is among several organizations affiliated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (and, by extension, the Family Research Council) that have received taxpayer money while simultaneously campaigning –- through Palmetto Family Alliance -– in support of legislation that limits marriage to heterosexual couples.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the Palmetto Family Council a five-year development grant as part of the federal Community-Based Abstinence Education Program (CBAE), administered by the Administration of Children and Families (ACF). PFC was one of only two South Carolina funding recipients for a program that was founded on the belief that “abstinence is the surest way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy and STDs.”

At the time, Palmetto stated it would use the award to fund a two-part strategy to promote abstinence — in community-based “abstinence clubs” and in online social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. On its website, PFC asserts that “teenagers need to remain abstinent from sexual activity because of their inability to think rationally.” PFC’s views fit in with the requirements of the grant program, which aimed to, among other things, teach children that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

The award amounted to $600,000 annually between 2008 and 2013, for a total of $3 million. However, because the Obama administration eliminated funding for the CBAE program in its fiscal year 2010 federal budget, PFC only received approximately $1.2 million of this money, according to HHS’s Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System (TAGGS).

In 2004, ACF awarded PFC $50,000 for a “Targeted Capacity-Building” grant, part of the federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, a program partly developed with influence from a report (PDF) produced by the Institute for American Values. National Organization for Marriage (NOM) President Maggie Gallagher is credited with the research and editorial assistance of the first edition of this report, published in 2002.

The Palmetto Family Council did not return repeated requests for comment regarding these federally-funded programs.

More recently, Smith introduced his challenge to the presidential candidates — the Family ’12 campaign — during a recent press conference in Columbia outside the Lincoln Street building Palmetto shares with a Starbucks. According to The Post and Courier, Smith said the breakdown of family and marriage is inhibiting South Carolina from prospering economically.

“The failure of the family is not only a social crisis or moral crisis; it is a fiscal crisis,” Smith said during the conference, as reported by The Post and Courier. “When family life isn’t healthy, there are huge financial costs for government and even business.”

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