When a pregnant woman walks into the state-subsidized Pregnancy Help and Information Center (PHI) in Tallahassee for help, she’ll likely get a dose of Christian preaching with her ultrasound.
That’s because PHI doubles as a Christian ministry. Its CEO, Patti Tidwell, a former missionary in Thailand, described the religious fervor of some of the client visits on a religious talk show in April.
“We were able to measure that baby and tell her how far along she is and we had an amazing conversation about the Lord,” Tidwell told evangelist pastor Jack King on the Gospel on the Radio Talk Show. “We asked if we could pray for her … she allowed that. We even wrote lists of songs and speakers and Bible apps and we laughed and cried and it was a good moment.”
PHI, a so-called crisis pregnancy center (CPC), goes so far as to refuse to hire employees and volunteers who don’t share the organization’s Christian beliefs, said Tidwell.
“They need to have a relationship with the Lord and love the Lord and be growing in their relationship with him,” she said of prospective employees and volunteers.
What she didn’t mention during the show is that PHI receives taxpayer funding via Florida’s Pregnancy Support Services Program, which doles out more than $4 million annually to roughly 50 Christian anti-abortion organizations aimed at convincing pregnant women and girls to give birth regardless of their personal circumstance.
Despite the Florida Constitution’s prohibition against using state money to“aid” religious organizations, a majority of those taxpayers’ dollars are going to Christian ministries and church groups that run CPCs, an ongoing investigation by the Florida Trident has found.
Among the Trident’s findings regarding state funds paid to CPCs during fiscal year 2022:
– Charities tied directly to the Catholic Church received $552,000 in state money, including $142,000 handed to the Archdiocese of Miami. The Archdiocese promotes its three centers as ministries “faithful to the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church,” and dedicated to using prayer to end “the moral evil of intentionally killing innocent human beings.”
–As previously reported by the Trident, the single largest recipient of state funds, Mary’s Pregnancy Resource Center (MPRC) in Hollywood, included a crucifix-adorned prayer room for pregnant clients dubbed the “war room.” MPRC received $528,000 in fiscal year 2022 but abruptly shut down in late April amid IRS liens and a spending investigation.
–Non-profit Heartbeat Miami received $352,000 from the state in 2022, making it the second-largest individual recipient behind MPRC. On its website, Heartbeat Miami bills itself as a “ministry” that believes “confessing Christians” are “especially called [to] make their love for God a life-saving and life-changing joy to their neighbors.”
–More than $100,000 went to Oasis Pregnancy Care Centers in Land O’ Lakes, which bills itself as a “non‐denominational, Christian, faith‐based, non‐profit ministry. Founded by an ex-IBM analyst named Pete Caselini in 2009, its website pronounces, “The Lord gave Pete a vision to start a pregnancy center in Land O’ Lakes near the high schools” that will “glorify God.”
–The Grace House in Deland, which received $62,500 from the state in 2022, describes itself as a non-profit “Christian mission” that purports to “empower abortion-vulnerable individuals by offering … the love and hope of God.”
In a phone interview with the Trident, Tidwell readily acknowledged that PHI is Bible-based and that the entire state program is Christian in nature. She said that the idea that CPCs wouldn’t be Christian would be akin to “walking into a Baskin-Robbins and ordering a steak.”
“This is a free country and we are faith-based,” said Tidwell. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not. Because we are faith-based, yes, that’s who I hire. If I went to a Jewish organization in New York they probably aren’t going to hire me.”
She said the state isn’t violating the Constitution when it comes to her anti-abortion center, which was provided $20,000 from the program last year, because she doesn’t request reimbursement from the state for any services that involve the center’s Christian outreach.
“If they want us to pray for them we do, and if we do we don’t turn in a reimbursement form with the state,” said Tidwell. “If I can remind you that there is an almighty God who wants you to be loved and seen by him, and if that means I don’t get paid for it, then that’s fine.”
Barry Silver, a Palm Beach attorney and Rabbi who is challenging Florida’s six-week abortion ban in court on the grounds that it violates his religious freedom as a Jew, called Tidwell’s argument about reimbursement “irrelevant.”
“It’s a complete entanglement of church and state,” said Silver. “The Florida Constitution doesn’t say anything about reimbursements – it says you can’t use any state funds to aid religion. If they get a penny, they’re violating the law.”
The program is set to get much more than mere pennies. The state’s controversial six-week abortion ban, signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, includes a provision to increase funding for the state program to $25 million annually for the centers, which now number about 90 across the state.
And that money will surely continue being funneled to religious organizations, especially considering that the agency contracted by the Florida Department of Health, which has yet to respond to written questions from the Trident, to dole out the state funds is itself dominated by Christian evangelicals who believe all abortion is murder.
“Failing to meet God’s standards”
The non-profit that contracts with the state to oversee the centers, the Florida Pregnancy Care Network (FPCN), is a place where evangelism and state government meld together in a way that’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Jim Kallinger, a 63-year-old former Republican state representative, personifies FCPN’s seamless blending of Evangelism and state government. Kallinger, who stepped down as FPCN chairman at the end of last year, now lobbies for the non-profit in Tallahassee and helped persuade the Legislature to approve the $20 million funding increase.
In his day job Kallinger works for The Front Line Agency, a high-profile conservative political consulting firm that counts among its high-profile Republican clients former Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam, and former Judge Roy Moore of Alabama.
He also serves as president of the Florida chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), a MAGA-supporting evangelical group founded in 2009 by Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed. At FFC’s national conference in June, both DeSantis and Donald Trump gave fire-and-brimstone campaign speeches for president.
When questioned by the Trident, Kallinger acknowledged the program is Christian in nature. “Everybody on the board is pro-life,” he said. “We believe every life is valuable. We believe everyone on this planet is created in God’s image.”
But like Tidwell he claimed that FPCN only reimburses the centers for services that are not related to the Christian mission of the centers.
“They completely separate the two,” Kallinger said. “They have medical offices where they see the women and they conduct medical procedures. Those are the areas where they get reimbursement with funds from the state. The spiritual discussions are taking place in completely different rooms. They keep it very separate and they’re very careful not to mix the two.”
Kallinger’s successor as chair of FPCN is Teresa Cooper Ward, an attorney and past president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Christian Legal Society and past member of a group called Children of God For Life.
In 2005, Cooper lost a bid to become chair of the Pinellas County Republican Party before going on to serve several years as Deputy General Counsel for the Florida House of Representatives.
Adding more lobbying firepower to the FPCN board is Marco T. Paredes, the director of government affairs for the large and well-connected Tallahassee law firm of Stearns Weaver Miller. Paredes is also a Catholic Church leader, serving as a member of the board for the Martyrs of La Florida Missions and as the lobbyist and health director for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Amber Butler, another staunch member of the Christian Right, joined the FPCN board in 2018 and shortly after was hired by the Florida Department of Education as the chief of external affairs of the Division of Blind Services.
Even in her new career as a bureaucrat, Butler’s social media postings reveal she’s intent on combining Christianity and government. In social media posts she endorses local and state political candidates who will “serve in a manner conducive to the Christian worldview.” On Facebook, she shared a video from the deeply conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington teaching that “abortion and homosexuality are some of the many ways people fail to meet God’s standard.”
Prior to joining the FPCN board, Butler attended the River Bible Institute and the River School of Government, which has a mission to “raise up people in government who are armed with a solid foundation in the Constitution, God’s Holy Word, and the power of the Holy Spirit – to take America back!”
The Tampa school claims that Democrats, immigrants, transgendered people, cannabis users and others are ruining the country and only fundamental Christianity can “expose the enemies of our sovereignty and Constitution.”
“You can’t erase God’s fingerprint from America,” the school’s 62-year-old founder, Rodney Howard-Browne, says in a promotional video.
Howard-Browne believes an elite Hollywood cabal of pedophiles kill children and drink their blood, claims COVID-19 was a hoax, and actively touts Donald Trump’s unfounded assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. His large central Florida ministry was once labeled a cult by the watchdog group Christian Research Council.
Helping Howard-Browne grow his Christian empire in Florida is the evangelist’s daughter and son-in-law, Kirsten and Caleb Ring, who started a Howard-Browne branded “River” church of their own in Clermont.
And they’re doing it with the help of taxpayers’ money, courtesy of the state’s CPC program.
“The whole thing is a scam”
After a recent Sunday morning concert of loud bass-thumping Christian music, Pastor Caleb Ring walks out onto the stage of the dimmed River Clermont Church talking in tongues and ready to lay his hands on the spiritually charged-up congregants lining up before him.
“You want a touch from the Lord?” he asks a young congregant before applying his palm to her forehead. “Jesus, fill her up with a double dose of the holy ghost.”
He then shouts, “Jesus!” and she falls back from his hand, seemingly stunned.
Ring, who like father-in-law Howard-Browne encourages his audience to become “drunk” with God, which prompts members of the audience to laugh uncontrollably and flop about, has made his stance on abortion clear as well: “It is murder,” he said in one recent video sermon. “It is unscriptural. It is not okay to do.”
In addition to his church, Ring and his wife Kirsten run a non-profit called Heart House Ministries, which receives funds from the State of Florida to run the South Lake Pregnancy and Care Center, also located in Clermont. South Lake offers no medical services, but provides diapers and other parental supplies in exchange for attendance in their classes.
When the Trident reached out to Ring for comment, the church’s finance director, Steve Alderman, returned the call instead. He readily acknowledged that Heart House, which received $80,000 from the state in 2022, uses religious content at South Lake.
“Women come in for counseling about health issues involving pregnancy and they counsel them from a Biblical perspective,” said Alderman. “The services are for counseling time that they spend counseling with the women. That’s what the state is paying them for.”
When asked if that violates the Florida Constitution’s ban on government funding for religious organizations, Alderman said he would have Caleb Ring answer that question. Ring never called.
The state-funded pregnancy centers have been criticized for allegedly giving false medical information to clients to dissuade them from getting abortions. While whatever medical advice given to the women at the South Lake center is unknown, the rhetoric used by the Rings in public is extreme. In tweets, Kirsten Ring, who serves as both a pastor and Heart House director, has alleged that COVID-19 vaccines cause birth defects as well as a “new Genocide.” Both claims have been widely discredited.
Caleb Ring, for his part, held full church services at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, defying health restrictions, according to an in-depth HuffPost report done in partnership with the non-profit Type Investigations. During the service Caleb cajoled his followers to violate distance protocols and hug each other because “Jesus loves them.”
Kirsten appears to follow her father’s political beliefs as well, having once retweeted a post alleging “the Democrats party is united trying to destroy the USA.” But she can’t compete with the extremism of her father, Howard-Browne, whom Caleb Ring recently called a “great general.”
Howard-Browne, a South African immigrant who founded the River Church in 1996, said during a sermon in 2017 that “at the highest levels of Hollywood” people sacrifice children and “drink the blood of young kids” and sacrifice children.
He’s appeared on the conspiracy site Infowars claiming “globalist gremlins” were out to destroy then-President Trump, called the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, a “false flag,” and said military intervention might be needed to keep the election from being stolen from Trump.
In 2020 he was arrested on charges of unlawful assembly at his Tampa church, as well as violating health and safety rules related to COVID-19, which he has called a “phantom plague.” The charges were later dropped after Howard-Browne agreed to follow health protocols at the church.
While the Heart House is an extreme example, Nikki Fried, former Florida Agriculture commissioner and current Florida Democratic Party chair, said the state shouldn’t be funding it or any other religious institution.
“The whole thing is a scam,” said Fried, who is an attorney. “It’s black and white: The state of Florida is funding religious institutions, which is against the United States Constitution and the Florida Constitution.”
“Who is going to stop them?”
Fried is far from alone in believing the state’s pregnancy center program runs afoul of both the state and federal Constitutions, the latter based on the First Amendment’s prohibition of government making any laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” which Thomas Jefferson famously said “built a wall between church and state.”
“It’s a clear Constitutional violation to fund faith-based, anti-abortion organizations that use public money to proselytize and dissuade people from acquiring the reproductive health care they seek,” said attorney Rachel Laser, who serves as CEO and president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If Florida agrees to fund faith-based organizations to provide social services on behalf of the government, the state is responsible for ensuring those services are secular, do not include religious content or coercion, and are medically and scientifically accurate.”
Frank Ravich, a law and religion professor at Michigan State University, said Florida’s pregnancy center program “obviously” violates the Florida Constitution and likely violates the U.S. Constitution as well.
“It takes a lot of stupidity to do something this brazen with taxpayer’s money,” Ravitch said. “It’s brazenly unconstitutional.”
The state Democratic chairwoman agreed.
“They run counter to the foundation of our country,” Fried said. “To be pushing religious ideology to have it intertwined with government policy in a country that is diverse in its religious freedom is a slap in the face.”
But Fried added that with a state Supreme Court dominated by DeSantis’ conservative appointees, she has no faith in the state’s highest court at this point. She also pointed out that the program itself – which has the centers “self-monitor” their own activities – has little to no oversight.
“They are operating knowing the courts are never going to stop them because they have been stacking the courts,” she said. “There’s no accountability, so who is going to stop them?”
About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.