Friday, January 2, 2009

Up in smoke: Will Ramstad’s faith-based earmark hurt his chances to win drug czar post?

By Andy Birkey , Minnesota Independent
December 10, 2008

During his time in Congress, retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad championed the needs of those experiencing mental illness or chemical addiction, often through the lens of his own experience as a recovering alcoholic. For that reason, his name tops the list of possible appointments by the Obama administration as either drug czar or as the administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But one earmark by Ramstad could prompt some questions from Senate Democrats during a confirmation hearing if Ramstad is nominated for either position.

Earlier this year, Ramstad sponsored a $235,000 earmark for the Minnesota Teen Challenge (MNTC), an Assemblies of God drug treatment center with a history of controversial therapies and overt religious indoctrination.

MNTC is part of a national network of drug treatment and “discipleship training” centers called Teen Challenge.

Teen Challenge programs across the country typically describe themselves in these terms:

“Being a Christian discipleship program, it endeavors to minister to the whole
person, helping them to become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially
adjusted, physically well, and spiritually alive through a relationship with
Jesus Christ.”

Teen Challenge’s overt Christian message is extends to outright conversion — at least according to its leaders. During a congressional hearing in May 2001, Congress members challenged the ability of Teen Challenge and other faith-based initiatives to offer government services without overt religiousness. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) asked Teen Challenge Executive Director John Castellani if the organization hired non-Christians. Castellani said no. When asked if Teen Challenge takes non-Christian clients, Castellani said they did and he then bragged that some Jews who complete Teen Challenge programs become “completed Jews.”

In Minnesota the program requires signing a statement acknowledging the program’s Christian nature:

I will participate in daily devotions, Bible reading, and prayer. I will
participate in the Teen Challenge choir which performs Christian songs at weekly
church services and special events. I will participate in lecture classes,
individualized study courses, group counseling, individual counseling, and other
program components that are based on Christian principles. I will attend church
services when scheduled. If offered the opportunity to partake in communion or
water baptism my participation is voluntary. If I object to the religious nature
of this program and its requirements, I will notify the Dean of Students and
receive a referral to another program of my choosing.

Despite those voluntary statements, a number of MNTC participants are ordered by the courts to complete the program — or else end up in jail. Just this Monday, a Minnesota judge sentenced a 27-year old Crystal man to MNTC. And dozens of others are sentenced to the faith-based treatment center each year.

Working for MNTC is also difficult for non-Christians, even if the program welcomes non-Christian applicants. The employment application contains this statement:

I understand that MN Teen Challenge is a Christian church ministry affiliated
with the Assemblies of God denomination. I understand that should my application
be accepted, I will be working in an environment that is decidedly Christian in
nature, and I hereby agree to abide by the bylaws, policies, and procedures of
Minnesota Teen Challenge. I further understand that although my religious
beliefs and practices may differ from those of Minnesota Teen Challenge, I will
respect the religious views of MnTC and its leadership. I will refrain from
promoting any beliefs or publicly demonstrating any behavior that contradicts
the teaching, philosophy, or beliefs of the MnTC program during working hours,
or while on MnTC property.

For non-Christian employees at a federally funded program, even leaving the office to privately pray in a vehicle in the parking lot could be grounds for immediate dismissal. For non-traditional families, bringing in pictures of loved ones could be grounds for dismissal. For Catholics, displaying any symbols that disagree with Pentecostalism could get an employee fired.

Know the Truth

MNTC is using its federal funds in Minnesota for a program called “Know the Truth.” The program works in middle schools, high schools and churches to encourage students to abstain from drug use and to help teens and parents talk about tough issues like drug use.

While MNTC has been attacked over the earmark, it contends it hasn’t used the money for religious purposes. The MNTC administration director offers this statement about the Know the Truth program:

Minnesota Teen Challenge is scheduled to receive a direct grant from the federal
government to be used exclusively for a non-religious drug and alcohol abuse
prevention program. This program contains no religious content whatsoever and
has been presented to over 30,000 junior and senior high school students across
the state. Minnesota Teen Challenge is aware of, and in agreement with the
constitutional restrictions placed on receipt of government funds. We take great
care to ensure that all federal money is strictly accounted for and that none of
the dollars are ever used for religious purposes.

Know the Truth is one of those gray areas that separation-of-church-and-state advocates watch carefully. While MNTC says religious purpose is scrubbed from the program, the program itself is a referral to the overtly religious drug treatment programs. The name “Know the Truth” is a common theme in evangelical Christianity owing to the New Testament verse John 8:32, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

The Know the Truth program relies on the life stories of graduates from MNTC’s drug treatment programs, and those stories invariably have overtures of religious awakening as a route to freedom from addiction.

One such Know the Truth night at a Leroy, Minn., church highlighted the stories of Gina, Shaun and Bethany as recounted in the Leroy Independent.

“The bottom came, [Gina] said, when she was in jail for the second or third time
and she was told by a person to ‘pray to God, just like you’re talking to me.’
This helped she said because she did need help desperately, and she knew God had
heard her plea when her mother called that Gina’s children were being returned
to her mother’s home, rather than being adopted out as had been the plan,” it
read. “Shaun and Bethany also shared their stories of drug addiction and with
God’s help had recovered and are now working with MN Teen Challenge.”
Is the Know the Truth program different when offered in a church instead of a high school?

Federally funded faith-based programs are controversial for the very reasons that make faith-based programs work for those who share the programs’ beliefs. The faithful cannot remain true to their faith if the government demands that faith be removed from a part of the program. The government cannot fulfill its commitment to the taxpayers if it supports a program that requires a certain faith from the staff and participants.

Ramstad’s position on faith-based recovery programs will come under further scrutiny if he secures a top job in the Obama administration.

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