Faith-Based Funding for Teen Challenge Stirs Debate

Two prominent leaders of the separation of church and state debate recently argued whether it is "alarming" that a self-described para-church ministry has received millions in government funds for its drug treatment program.

Teen Challenge, an evangelical Christian recovery program connected to the Assemblies of God denomination, is at the center of the debate between the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law & Justice.

Lynn referenced in his Beliefnet blogalogue last week a recent article in The Minnesota Independent about the more than $10 million in government funds that the Minnesota Teen Challenge has received over the past seven years. The Minnesota government has also raised federal funding for the Christian organization several times during that time period.

What Lynn and those in his organization find troubling is that Teen Challenge says its mission is to help youths and adults overcome drug and alcohol problems by applying biblical principles with the hopes people can be mentally, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually healthy.

"The government has entered into a contract with Teen Challenge to perform drug addiction treatment services," Lynn writes. "But it's always been a problem for the group to separate the treatment from the Christian orientation and beliefs of the organization."

Moreover, what is "even worse" is that Teen Challenge supposedly only hires Christians that adhere to its statement of faith and code of ethics.

"[W]e have faith-based programs taking government funds while pushing religious beliefs, and at the same time discriminating in hiring practices," Lynn writes. "This needs to stop. There are plenty of service organizations that do not push religion and deserve the funding."

In response, Sekulow maintains there is "nothing 'alarming'" about the Christian recovery program receiving federal funding. He contends that it is "entirely permissible" for Teen Challenge and other Christian organizations to receive federal funding if it serves to address an important secular interest, in this case helping citizens recover from addictions.

"The mere fact that a corporation or association espouses certain religious beliefs does not preclude it from receiving the same benefits, including funding, that are available to non-religious organizations." Sekulow argues, listing several court cases as support.

Moreover, Sekulow noted that the Minnesota state legislature probably decided to increase funding for Teen Challenge because it has a nearly 86 percent success rate in its recovery program.

In terms of hiring policy, Sekulow corrected Lynn and pointed out that the article Lynn cited says that Teen Challenge requires only staff in executive ministry positions, not employees in other positions, to adhere to specific religious policies. Noting the difference, Sekulow maintained that Teen Challenge's policy "presents no constitutional crisis at all."

The latest blog entries on Beliefnet's "Lynn v. Sekulow: Politics, Religion & The Public Square" fuels the ongoing debate about the hiring policy of faith-based charities that receive government funding.

In September, progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis, who is a member of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, contended that there is a need for faith-based charities to "preserve" their religious identity.

"[S]ervice provision is not the same thing as hiring," Wallis stated in a blog found on the ministry Sojourners' web site. "To do what they do, faith organizations must maintain their identity."

Wallis believes that if faith groups are forced to conform their hiring policies to the standards of secular groups that receive federal funding then many faith groups would rather give up the money than change their policies. That in turn would cause "radical disruption" in key partnerships with the faith community.

For now, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships says it will continue to allow federally funded religious groups to consider an applicant's religion when hiring. But the faith-based office says it will be stricter when it comes to overseeing how federal funds are being used by faith-based groups to avoid the funds being spent on religious evangelism or other non-secular purposes.

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