Breaking News

New case on rights of faith-based groups

A new case potentially testing the current Supreme Court’s sympathy for faith-based organizations that want to take part in publicly funded programs reached the Court on Thursday in an appeal by a Michigan group that uses religious programming as part of its services to delinquent and troubled youth. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled on Jan. 17 that the organization could be constitutionally barred from a state program of youth placement because it could not assure that youths who went there could “opt out” of religion-based activity. The chance to avoid such programming, the Circuit Court found, did not represent “true private choice.” State placements would promote religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, the Court concluded.

The appeal was filed by Teen Ranch, Inc., a residential treatment center for youth in Kingston, Mich. Since 1966, it has provided counseling and other services for youths between ages 11 and 17. Its petition notes that “it has openly advertised its religous orientation and has unapologetically incorporated religious programming into the services it provides.” There is, however, no mandatory requirement to take part in any religious-themed activity, it added.

The petition in Teen Ranch, et al., v. Udow, et al. (available here), raises two issues: first, whether the Circuit Court was wrong in ruling “that a state official can require a faith-based provider of social services, which is not a seminary, to forfeit its religious beliefs and practices before it can participate in a government program, when the applicable state and federal legislation have expressed a directly opposite intent;” and, second, whether the Circuit Court erred in holding “that an individual’s right to veto a religious placement, and thus be assured a secular placement, is not sufficient to make placement a private choice for Establishment Clause purposes.”

State officials imposed a moratorium on any further placements at Teen Ranch in November 2003, describing as improper the forcing of youths to take part in religious practices and incorporating its religoius beliefs into its daily activities and treatment plans. Teen Ranch refused to discontinue all religious activities as the price of remaining eligible to receive placed youth. While youth are not forced to attend religious services, “it is encouraged and we believe…part of an effective treatment program.” Alternatives are provided to youth who wish to opt out, it said. It vowed to “continue to include such programming for children in our care.” The moratorium was kept in effect, leading Teen Ranch to sue.

A District judge and the Sixth Circuit rejected its constitutional challenge to the exclusion.

The petition argues that there is a split between the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts on whether an opt-out is a private choice, and thus the faith-based organization involved is entitled to participate equally in a state-funded program. The appeal also asserts that the Sixth Circuit wrongly expanded the reach of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Locke v. Davey, upholding a state law that barred state scholarships to students studying for the clergy. “The decision below essentially grants bureaucrats virtually unlimited ‘play in the joints;’ to discriminate against religious organizations at will,” the petition contends.