Court Denies FFRF Standing to Sue over North Dakota’s Subsidy of Christian, Church-Run Juvenile Ranc

FFRF Considers Appeal or New Lawsuit Approach

(Madison, Wis.) The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, remains committed to ending state subsidy of avowedly Christian juvenile detention facilities in North Dakota, despite a decision by a federal judge yesterday dismissing its lawsuit on lack of standing. The state funds the placement of children in the Lutheran ranches, which actively impose religion on inmates and discriminate against nonChristian juveniles.

U.S. Dist. Judge Daniel L. Hovland yesterday granted the motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit, filed in June 2007. He ruled that because the Legislature does not explicitly mandate that state officials allocate specific funds for the ranches, that the alleged violation amounts to a discretionary action by the executive branch and may not be challenged by taxpayers. The ranches, run by two Lutheran denominations, have monopolized juvenile detention services in the state for many decades.

“We will carefully assess whether to appeal or to potentially prosecute the suit on behalf of committed  children,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

“We urge parents with children incarcerated at any of the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranches (Minot, Fargo and Bismarck, N.D.) to contact us if they have concerns about the religious activities,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.

The ranches, run by the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, direct children “to find faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Foundation lawsuit had alleged. 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, and the “smudging of the sweetgrass,” a Native American worship ritual, is explicitly barred.

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 conducts Spiritual Life Groups, which typically view videos or read the bible, followed by discussions. All activities incorporate a Christian theme. The stated 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 should not be sentencing juveniles to a religious treatment program, and taxpayers should not be footing the bill to indoctrinate children or punish children who object to such indoctrination,” said Gaylor.

The Foundation and five North Dakota members had sued Lisa Bjergaard, director of the Division of Juvenile Services within the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and Carol K. Olson, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, as well as two county social service directors.

The Foundation extends grateful thanks to its members Dorothy Manley, Ken Mischka, Judy Mischka, John Ford and Deidre Godycki for being part of the lawsuit..

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of more than 12,000 freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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