Minnesota Teen Challenge describes itself as a “para-church” ministry that completes the “spiritual restoration” of Minnesotans dealing with drug addiction, yet over the last seven years it’s received more than $10 million in government funds – and twice the Minnesota Legislature has singled the program out for a raise.
The arrangement raises questions about the constitutional separation of church and state, and some experts say the state has overstepped its bounds in contracting with Teen Challenge.
In 2001, the Minnesota Legislature approved a funding increase of 46 percent for Teen Challenge and authorized another in 2005, capping payments at $700 per unit. Experts say those funding increases create the impression that the state favors the treatment center which is closely affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal Christian denomination.
“To me, I think, that the legislature is setting special rates for a pervasively sectarian organization is enough to make that funding unconstitutional,” said Alex Luchenitzer of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “You have clear favoritism and endorsement of a religious program.”
Religious character “inseparable” from treatment
Beyond perceptions of legislative favoritism is the question of how the state got involved with a religious ministry in the first place. The answer goes back a decade and involved two years of legal wrangling between Hennepin County and Teen Challenge.
In early 2000, Teen Challenge, Hennepin County and the Department of Human Services began a discussion about contracting with Teen Challenge to provide chemical dependency treatment services to county clients.
According to some 1,300 pages of documents obtained by the Minnesota Independent, that arrangement hit a few snags along the way as Hennepin County looked for a way to contract with a pervasively Christian program.
“I will tell you that Teen Challenge has been consulting with us for the past couple years and that there seems to be no way for them to separate the treatment from the Christian orientation and beliefs,” Peg Murphy, former program manager of Hennepin County’s Chemical Health Division, wrote in a letter to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. “Because Hennepin County’s standard contract language precludes funding for ‘religious training or services,’ we do not intend to negotiate a contract with Teen Challenge in the absence of authorization from your office.”
She urged the county attorney to offer an opinion before county officials could negotiate a contract.
In early 2000, Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar approved the arrangement, presumably under the doctrine of “beneficiary choice,” giving Teen Challenge the go-ahead to submit an application.
The county rejected requests by the Minnesota Independent to obtain a copy of that opinion, citing the documents as “privileged.”
Klobuchar would go on to help secure a federal earmark for the program as U.S. Senator in 2008 along with former Rep. Jim Ramstad. And the organization has secured the support of a number of other elected officials. First Lady Mary Pawlenty was a past member of the board of directors, and Gov. Pawlenty has donated a large sum of campaign funds ($85,892) to the program. Rep. Michele Bachmann donated $9,200 in campaign funds related to the Tom Petters Ponzi scheme scandal, but Teen Challenge later returned the “tainted” funds.
“Beneficiary choice” means a client has a choice between a secular and a religious treatment program, and the client can pay money given by the government to the treatment of their choosing. In other states, the system works with vouchers, which Minnesota doesn’t use. Instead Teen Challenge gets paid a flat rate multiplied by the number of clients in its care who receive state assistance. It’s that rate that the Minnesota legislature voted to increase in 2001 and 2005.
Luchenitzer said that the “beneficiary choice” arrangement that Hennepin County set up with Teen Challenge may be legally problematic.
“What’s clear is that this funding has to be completely under the control of the individual,” he said. If the money is not part of a voucher system, he added, then there isn’t a true choice of program, only “approved” programs that the county contracts with, such as Teen Challenge.
And the state sets the rate of reimbursement, not the client, which creates a constitutional problem when the Legislature decides to give a religious program “a raise,” he said.
“Government should not influence how much money goes to a specific provider,” especially when its a religious provider, Luchenitzer said. “It puts the force of government authority behind it,” which he characterizes as an endorsement of religion.
While the County Attorney’s office gave the program the green light, problems continued to plague the fledgling arrangement because of MNTC’s religious nature. The county’s contracting department raised a red flag in 2001 about the evangelical treatment center’s hiring practices: Teen Challenge said it would only hire Christians who adhered to a statement of faith and a code of ethics.
“Minnesota Teen Challenge is a residential Christian discipleship program dealing with adolescents and adults with life-controlling issues, and is a para-church ministry operating under the authority of the Assemblies of God denomination,” the group’s statement of faith begins (PDF). “Our purpose is to train individuals (students) in our program to be disciples of Jesus Christ.”
That statement also states that “whether a person is preparing a meal, writing a computer program, or generating a financial statement” for the organization, that person must “be an effective witness for Christ.”
It requires all employees to pray for the program and may be called upon “to minister to program students” with their testimony.
In MNTC’s code of conduct, all employees are required to attend church and to pray. They are prohibited from viewing pornography or being in a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex.
Hennepin County took issue with those employment practices and rejected Teen Challenge’s application because it violated the county’s ban on religious discrimination. The county said that MNTC could resubmit the application with a new affirmative action plan.
Finally a compromise was reached: Teen Challenge limited the practice to executive, leadership, pastoral, and counselor positions.
Teen Challenge’s chemical dependency program manager Cecilia Winsor explained the news in an email to the county’s senior planning analyst, Michael Miller.
“There are certain ‘ministry’ positions which will have religious requirements to them, and those positions will only be filled by people who can perform the job,” she wrote (PDF). “A Muslim would not be considered for a Pastoral Counselor position, but would be considered to work in our Accounting [Department], for example.”
According to state records (PDF), Teen Challenge requires 21 of its 40 employees to be Christians.
Some of those job descriptions highlight the close connections to Pentecostalism. The executive director’s position description says that the director must be “approved by the Assemblies of God and endorsed by the National Division of Home Missions.”
The National Division is now called Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, and its mission is “to equip, empower and encourage the Assemblies of God to evangelize America.”
Teen Challenge International, Inc., of which Minnesota Teen Challenge reports to monthly, is one of the six ministries that make up the Missions.