The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing Secretary Ben Carson and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for dodging records requests relating to a White House Bible study.
FFRF, a state/church watchdog, collaborated with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog, on the federal suit.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges HUD has a pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on Freedom of Information Act requests “where disclosure of the requested documents is likely to cast the agency or HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a negative light.”
FFRF, which is based in Madison, cited reports that the Trump administration holds weekly Bible study sessions at the White House.
FFRF wants records to determine whether the Bible study uses government resources, whether staffers feel coerced into organizing or participating in the religious event.
FFRF also wants the records to ascertain government access granted to Capitol Ministries, a group that seeks to evangelize elected officials.
The list of Bible study attendees includes officials whose appointments FFRF objected to because of their inability to keep their personal religion separate from their public office, including:
• Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
• Attorney General Jeff Sessions
• CIA Director Mike Pompeo
• Energy Secretary Rick Perry
• HUD Secretary Ben Carson
A news release from FFRF stated, "Trump himself rarely makes an appearance."
When FFRF asked for the records in August 2017, it requested, as is typical with 501(c)(3) groups, a fee waiver.
HUD denied fee waiver the day of the request because the records were allegedly not in the public interest.
FFRF filed an appeal and HUD refused the waiver because the records FFRF was seeking supposedly did not relate to HUD operations or activities.
“If this Bible study is legal and aboveboard, as the Trump administration and Fox News have argued, what are they trying to hide by torpedoing the FOIA process?” asked FFRF co-rresident Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF’s director of strategic response, Andrew L. Seidel, began looking into the Bible study and the possible use of government resources in early August 2017. “We’re still waiting on records from all the various departments involved in this bible study, but HUD has been particularly secretive and obstinate,” Seidel said.
FFRF said the man leading the sessions, Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries, is a conservative Christian who has called Catholicism the "world’s largest false religion," declared homosexuality an "abomination: and said it’s "sinful" for women with children to serve in Congress.
HUD also denied FFRF a fee waiver on a second request, filed in October, over Carson’s daily schedule and appearance at “Revive Us 2,” an event at the new Museum of the Bible. HUD refused the wavier the day after the FOIA request and denied FFRF’s appeal.
CREW’s fee waiver requests also were rejected.
CREW sought a fee waiver and records, including emails, relating to the role Carson’s son and wife play in HUD, where they are “omnipresent” fixtures. HUD denied another of CREW’s waivers, this time for records relating to Carson’s use of private planes to travel.
The watchdogs said they are seeking the fee waivers they are due under the law, to enjoin HUD from blanket denials of waivers and attorneys’ fees and costs.