Christian group wins grant to help rescued prostitutes

Money would build facility to house five to 10 women

Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Transitional housing for women trying to escape prostitution and sexual exploitation could become a reality in Anchorage with a $263,500 appropriation from the state.

Some, however, are questioning whether the money could break constitutional guarantees of a separation of church and state.

Mary Magdalene Home Alaska, a non-denominational Christian organization in Eagle River, already provides support and counseling for Hiland Mountain Correctional Center's female inmates who have been prostitutes or sexually abused. But a new facility would provide a safe haven for victims of prostitution and sexual abuse and for female prisoners making the transition back into society, according to Teri Inch, a Mary Magdalene Home board member.

The group was established in 1996 and currently serves about 30 clients, Inch said. It holds group meetings twice a week and pairs clients with case managers for one-on-one counseling.

The home would to house five to 10 women at a time.

Inch said clients who have been sexually exploited and are addicted to drugs or alcohol are referred to Akeela, Inc., in Anchorage for inpatient treatment.

"The problem is you can't always get them in," she said. "There's not always a bed available."

Transitional housing provided by Mary Magdalene Home would be the only facility in Alaska to focus primarily on prostitutes and those who have been exploited sexually, Inch said.

The group received more than half of the $400,000 it requested from the Legislature this year. Inch said it is uncertain whether the organization will build a new facility or renovate an existing structure, but it will need additional funds to do it.

"We'd like to have it in the next 12 months," she said.

Lloyd Eggan, president of the Alaska chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was not familiar with the budget item but said faith-based groups should ensure they are not using funds to convert clients.

He said it's difficult to tell if the money will be used properly.

"It's hard to tell from a budget line because it depends a great deal on the performance standards," he said. "It's quite rare in a budget document to earmark funds for a specific private organization. Such earmarks are always really bad public policy and the obvious religious aspects of this raise further constitutional questions as general accountability and good government concerns."

Inch said the organization does not require participants to be Christian.

"There's no conversion, that's not part of our mission," she said.

Inch added that a spiritual director helps clients to find a church if they are interested, but funding to pay the director does not come from the state.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said there is no way to tell if the money will be used properly but added that he trusts the work the organization is doing.

"I can't even guarantee the sun's going to come out tomorrow," he said. "The whole issue here is desperately helping some people who need help."

The capital budget bill still awaits the governor's signature.

The budget bill is SB 46.

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