Challenges North Dakota’s Subsidy of Christian Juvenile “Ranch”

FFRF Launches 11th Faith-based Lawsuit

(Madison, Wis.) The 10,000-member Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog group, today filed a federal lawsuit in North Dakota challenging state and county subsidy of avowedly Christian juvenile detention facilities.

Within the week, the U.S. Supreme Court will be ruling over the right of the Foundation and its members to sue as federal taxpayers over aspects of the faith-based initiative. The Foundation’s newest lawsuit, its 11th explicit challenge of the faith-based initiative, relies on state, not federal, taxpayer standing.

With three of its North Dakota members, Dorothy Manley, Ken Mischka and Judy Mischka, the Foundation is suing Lisa Bjergaard, director of the Division of Juvenile Services within the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Bismarck, and Daniel P. Richter, director of the Ward County Social Services Department in Minot. Also named as an interested party is the Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch, which operates in Minot, Fargo and Bismarck.

The ranch, run by the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, attempts to modify behavior by directing children to find faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” the Foundation legal complaint alleges.

The facilities incorporate biblical teachings, subscribe to the three Ecumenical Creeds and the Lutheran Confessions, and schedule weekly Spiritual Life Groups activities, church attendance or other spiritual activities on Sundays, individual spiritual discussions, prayers at meals, baptism, confirmation studies, devotions, bible studies and related discussion groups. Post-release mentoring services also incorporate religion and are publicly funded with taxpayer appropriations.

NonChristian religious services are expressly forbidden on the premises of the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, including “smudging the sweetgrass,” which is a Native American worship ritual.

Each cottage at the Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch has a designated Spiritual Life Specialist, who is a “direct care” person responsible for the “spiritual life” of the committed children. Children are initially interviewed by the Spiritual Life Advisor, who assesses the “spiritual status and needs” of each child. Each cottage has Spiritual Life Groups, which typically view videos or read the bible, followed by discussions. All activities incorporate a Christian theme, and the mission is to help children succeed in the name of Jesus Christ.

The “ranches” provide services to vulnerable youth who are experiencing severe emotional disorders. Public agencies referring children are responsible for paying for the care and treatment. Children are committed without their consent by county social service agencies or the North Dakota Department of Juvenile Services.

The Dakota Boys & Girls Ranch indoctrinates children to believe they need “a close relationship with God” and that “Christ chose to love, live, and die for all people, and that Jesus sits at the right hand of God.”

Children are disciplined for refusing to participate in the spiritual aspects of their therapeutic treatment plan. Discipline includes suspension of privileges, prolongation of commitment, and compelled writing assignments explaining personal religious beliefs. Refusal to participate in religious activities is considered nonparticipation. Unwanted behaviors are characterized as “an offense or corruption in the eyes of Jesus Christ.” Staff are instructed to indoctrinate, and to indoctrinate in Christian beliefs only .

The government defendants are violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and impermissibly advancing, endorsing and promoting the establishment of religion, the Foundation asserts. The funding and referrals by the state and county “convey a message that religion is favored, preferred, and promoted, and the programming procured by the Defendants is cloaked in traditional indicia of governmental endorsement.”

The Foundation seeks a declaration that the arrangement violates the First Amendment, an injunction barring the government from continuing to refer children to the ranch, and an order enjoining the defendants from using state and county funds to promote, advance or endorse the establishment of religion, including disbursements made to the ranch.

“We were shocked to learn of such an egregious and blatant violation of the separation between church and state, and one which involves such a vulnerable population,” said Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“This case shows the need of taxpayer lawsuits to challenge state/church violations,” added Foundation co-president Dan Barker. “The government should not be sentencing juveniles to a religious treatment program, and taxpayers should not be footing the bill to indoctrinate children.”

The Complaint, which was overnighted yesterday for filing today, is being handled by Richard L. Bolton, of Madison, Wis.

The case has been assigned to District Judge Daniel Hovland.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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