Friday, June 22, 2007

A court case to watch

~North Dakota is being sued in this separation of church and state case. From the New York Times

A group that advocates strict separation of church and state has sued North Dakota to bar public financing of an association that provides therapeutic and rehabilitative services for troubled youth by steeping them in Christian teachings, Bible readings, religious services and rituals.

The complaint was brought Tuesday in a federal court in North Dakota by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, acting on behalf of three of the state’s taxpayers. It is the most recent in a spate of legal challenges to public financing of religion-based programs.

The foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics, argues that the state’s Division of Juvenile Services and the Ward County Social Services Department should stop committing children with behavioral and emotional problems to the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, which, according to the ranch’s Web site, helps “children and families succeed in the name of Christ.” The ranch — actually an association that provides a variety of residential and day programs around the state — and directors of the two government agencies are named as defendants.

The complaint says that “children are disciplined for refusing to participate in the spiritual aspects” of their therapy and that objectionable behavior is deemed a “corruption in the eyes of Jesus Christ.”

“This is much more troubling than other cases,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, “because it is a captive audience and a vulnerable population that is unabashedly being indoctrinated in Christianity. They are being committed by the county or the state without their consent.”

The ranch is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the country’s two main Lutheran denominations. Its president, Gene D. Kaseman, declined to comment. Lisa Bjergaard, director of the Division of Juvenile Services, said that she had not seen the complaint but that the ranch did not coerce children into practicing Christianity.

“It’s kind of mysterious to me why they would file the lawsuit,” Ms. Bjergaard said. “Kids can attend church service if they want, but they aren’t forced to.”

The ranch has provided social services since 1952 and currently serves 124 children in its residential programs and 90 in its day programs, its Web site says. Non-Christian youth may practice their faith off campus, according to the Web site, but the environment on campus is entirely Christian.

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