Damakant Jayshi

A nonprofit advocating the principle of separation of state and church has strongly objected to attempts by some Marathon County supervisors to “replace secular public health care with a religiously oriented crisis pregnancy center”.

Issuing a press statement on Tuesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said the proposal to replace the Marathon County Health Department’s Nurse Family Partnership with faith-based Hope Life Center “must be rejected.” NFP is a nurse visitation program for first-time mothers and their babies from low-income families. The NFP is a new version of the county’s Start Right program.

“While Marathon County’s citizens are certainly free to seek out religious organizations’ support and services, facilitating that relationship is beyond the scope of a secular government,” FFRF Legal Fellow Samantha Lawrence wrote in a letter to Kurt Gibbs, chair of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors. “By partnering with and leading citizens to an explicitly Protestant Christian organization, the county will signal blatant favoritism towards Christianity.”

Hope Life Center’s Executive Director, Jack Hoogendyk, said the FFRF letter is “rife with disinformation and outright falsehoods.”

The FFRF letter was written three days before the Board of Supervisors adopted the 2023 budget on Nov. 10. While the board rejected a proposal to reduce the NFP budget by $621,507, it approved a smaller cut, $140,000. The originally allocated budget for NFP was $841,507. The 38-member board drastically reduced every cut proposed by some supervisors.

Unclear is whether the county will employ the services of Hope Life Center. Gibbs did not respond to an email inviting him to comment by press time.

The center’s executive director, Hoogendyk, is also the chair of the Republican Party of Marathon County. A number of county supervisors endorsed by the party are now pushing to replace NFP with Hope Life Center. But other supervisors and a number of residents have strongly opposed the proposal.

“The board must reject the proposal to replace the secular and publicly funded Nurse Family Partnership Program with Hope Life Center,” the FFRF statement said. “It is both unconstitutional and poor policy for Marathon County to direct vulnerable residents seeking reproductive health services to an overtly religious organization that does not even reliably provide scientifically accurate medical information.”

The FFRF referred to data on PRRI website, that shows 22% of Marathon County residents, out of $136,000, as religiously non affiliated.

“This would needlessly alienate and fail to adequately serve Marathon County residents who are part of the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the nearly one in three Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated,” the FFRF said.

Hoogendyk provided a detailed response when asked to comment on the specific charges leveled FFRF against Hope Life Center and requested that his response be published in full. [A copy of his unedited response is attached below.] In his statement, he referred to his remarks at the Marathon County budget committee hearing last month.

Jack Hoogendyk. Photo: Marathon County

“Hope Life Center is not requesting a contract or partnership with the county on providing services to pregnant women in our county,” Hoogendyk told Wausau Pilot and Review. “I made very clear that we do not seek any financial remuneration for providing these services.”

He said the center’s services are cost effective to the county since Hope provides the “same essential core services” to 139 women in Marathon County “at ZERO cost to taxpayers (and ZERO cost to the 139 clients,” while the county “wants to spend $775,000 of tax levy on services to 50 women.” Hope Life Center is not an accredited agency.

FFRF also accuses Hope Life of spreading the “patently false assertion that abortion causes breast cancer and sterility.” Hoogendyk denied that Hope Life has done so, but cited a link of a 2018 study that concluded “moderately strong association identified between abortion and breast cancer explains in part the spread of the breast cancer epidemic to South Asia as it has become Westernized.”

But Hoogendyk, while claiming that “numerous meta-studies have shown a link between abortion and breast cancer,” clarified that a “link” is not that same as “cause.”

The abortion-cancer “link” has been repeatedly debunked by most credible health-related organizations, saying such claims are religiously and politically motivated.

“Abortion is an issue that can bring out strong feelings in people,” writes American Cancer Society. “These feelings are often linked to personal, religious, and political views that may have little to do with any connection to a disease like cancer.”

“Linking these topics creates a great deal of emotion and debate,” ACS writes further. “But scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer.”

And, Planned Parenthood. which Hoogendyk cites on FFRF’s charges related to the contraceptives, says: “Undaunted by the absence of compelling evidence associating abortion with a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, opponents of safe and legal abortion insist on making the connection anyway.”

Hoogendyk also disputed FFRF’s assertion that it would be “unconstitutional” for the county to partner with a faith-based organization, adding the county has provided funding to several agencies that have a faith-based or religious component.

Statement from Jack Hoogendyk: