Big Battle At The Ranch: Michigan Agency Wins Round In Fracas Over 'Faith-Based' Funding

Teen Ranch's mission statement declares that it works to provide "hope to young people and families through life changing relationships and experiences from a Christian perspective."

An evangelical group that seeks to convince troubled juveniles to turn their lives around by embracing its version of Christianity has lost another round in a long court battle over a decision by Michigan officials to stop funding it.

Since 1996, Teen Ranch has been one of 35 "faith-based" groups contracting with Michigan's Family Independence Agency (FIA). The Agency is charged with providing care and supervision to abused, neglected and delinquent children who have been placed in state care via the courts. It is permitted to contract with private organizations to provide the services.

Teen Ranch's mission statement declares that it works to provide "hope to young people and families through life changing relationships and experiences from a Christian perspective." Although Teen Ranch was not circumspect about its religious goals, it was not until 2003 that state officials started showing serious concern over the group's youth services.

After a review of the private programs, the FIA concluded that Teen Ranch had been coercing children to participate in its religious activities, which included prayer before meals, weekly devotional gatherings and church attendance.

Officials at Teen Ranch refused to stop pressuring youth to join religious activities, and the Michigan agency severed ties with the group. Teen Ranch then hired a well heeled Religious Right legal outfit, the Alliance Defense Fund, and in 2004 sued the agency. In court, Teen Ranch claimed the state had violated the group's constitutional rights, including the right to freely exercise its religious beliefs.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell ruled against Teen Ranch, saying none of its constitutional rights had been trampled by the Michigan agency and that in fact the agency was justified in cutting ties with the religious group.

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with what it called the district court's "well-considered opinion."

Like Bell, the federal appeals court panel correctly concluded that despite the claims of Teen Ranch and the Alliance Defense Fund, the state of Michigan is under no obligation to support religious groups with tax dollars. Moreover, the appeals court ruled in Teen Ranch v. Udow, that the Michigan agency would violate state law and the First Amendment principle of church-state separation if it did not cease its support of Teen Ranch.

Both courts noted that the youths were ultimately the responsibility of the state of Michigan and that the youngsters had no independent choice in determining the residential programs where they were placed.

The court pointed out that the Michigan agency provided Teen Ranch numerous opportunities to bring their residential programs into compliance with state and federal law, but the group remained obstinate.

At one point, Teen Ranch issued a statement declaring that, "incorporating religious teachings into on-going daily activities of youth and their treatment plans touches at the core of why we were founded, why we are here today, and why we will continue to include such programming for children in our care."

The Teen Ranch legal battle exemplifies what is so fundamentally flawed with faith-based public funding, which has been championed by the Bush administration. The administration's "faith-based" initiative calls for religious groups like Teen Ranch to receive billions in tax dollars alongside secular organizations.

This case also underscores the strategy of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund. They don't seek mere "equal treatment" for faith-based groups. They want the government to be forced to subsidize them. Thankfully, the gambit failed.

Teen Ranch has a right to spread its religious messages, but it has no right to be publicly funded. And government, federal and state, has a constitutional obligation to ensure that tax dollars do not promote or advance religion.