Montana Ranch Embroiled in Church-State Case

A Montana ranch that operates on behalf of disadvantaged children is entangled in a legal dispute over whether it can benefit from a certain regulation exemption regarding religious nonprofits.

Ranch for Kids, based in Eureka near the Canadian border, seeks to be freed from state oversight on the condition that they are part of a religious nonprofit.

Joyce Sterkel, owner of Ranch for Kids, told The Christian Post that "about governmental administrative regulations."

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"This is another example of government interfering and hampering small business. We provide jobs to individuals in our community which has the highest unemployment rate in the State," said Sterkel. "We are an economic benefit to our community. Our students provide community service here locally and on a rotating basis we provide food and meals at our local soup kitchen."

According to Sterkel, if her Ranch is not exempted, they will have to pay licensure fees that could range from $3,000 to $10,000.

In October 2011, Sterkel signed an agreement with the leader of Epicenter International Missions Ministry, making the ranch an "adjunct ministry" of the organization.

Despite this, Montana's Department of Labor and Industry board argues that the agreement with Epicenter is insufficient to qualify for Montana's religious exemption.

According to Montana Code Annotated 37-48-102(6)(b)(vi), an organization that can be exempted from the state oversight includes "an organization, boarding school, or residential school that is an adjunct ministry of a church incorporated in the state of Montana."

Mary Tapper, attorney for the department, stated in a court briefing that Epicenter does not qualify as a church in the legal sense.

"The 'local church' is not a church but the evangelical philosophy of a young man with no degree or formal theological training," said Tapper. "The legislature contemplated the exemption would apply to a program having a bona fide relationship with a church, not a program seeking a loophole to circumvent the board's licensing requirements."

Tapper explained to The Christian Post that while the case was going to go before a Lincoln County judge Tuesday, it had to be delayed due to a family emergency for the Ranch for Kids' lawyer.

"The current status is that both sides have filed motions for summary judgment regarding whether Ranch for Kids is exempt from licensing because it is an 'adjunct ministry of a church incorporated in the state of Montana'," said Tapper.

"A hearing was scheduled to take place tomorrow on the motions; however, the attorney for Ranch for Kids had a family emergency, and the hearing has been vacated. It has not been reset at this time."

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