Christian prison ministry canceled for conflicting with state's diversity values: lawsuit

Facebook/Prison Fellowship
Facebook/Prison Fellowship

A Christian instructor of a faith-based rehabilitation program intended for male inmates is challenging a Minnesota correctional facility's cancellation of the class over its complementarian teachings on marriage and gender.

Anthony Schmitt and his colleague, Bruce Robinson, taught a class called "The Quest for Authentic Manhood" from 2012 to 2023 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. 

According to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota on Monday, Schmitt received an email on July 2023 from DOC Assistant Commissioner Jolene Rebertus informing him that he could no longer teach the class following a review of the curriculum. 

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"The program directly conflicts with the diversity, equity, and inclusivity values of the department by defining manhood, or the study of masculinity, through a biblical lens of what a 'real man looks like,'" Rebertus wrote, as quoted in court documents. 

"Throughout all sessions reviewed, men were only identified as heterosexual, seeking ideal relationships and marriage with women," the email continued. "It is evident that throughout this curriculum, manhood can only be achieved through heterosexual relationships." 

The lawsuit states that the DOC and Rebertus "shut down the Quest program because it teaches that men and women have complementarian roles in family and society, that men occupy a particular role in family and society, and that same-sex attraction does not require men or women to engage in same-sex relationships."

Rebertus, who is named as a defendant in the suit, also highlighted the program's depiction of the "ideal marriage core role" for a wife as a "helper" to her husband, who is the "head" of the household. 

"While the teachings do describe the woman in this role as 'honorable,' the reinforced stereotypes and biases can be hurtful and downright dangerous for those participants who either committed acts of violence, domestic violence, or may be victims of violence by women," the DOC assistant commissioner stated. 

Schmitt is being represented by the nonprofit law firm the Upper Midwest Law Center of Golden Valley, Minnesota, and co-counsel True North Legal of Saint Paul. 

In a Monday statement, Schmitt emphasized the program's impact on over 1,000 male inmates who participated. According to the lawsuit, the class has always been voluntary for male inmates to attend. 

"I have seen countless powerful testimonies and tears shed over the last decade because of the tremendous positive impact this program has had on inmates' lives," Schmitt said. "I was shocked and dismayed when the DOC suddenly canceled us, and I just want to be able to minister to these men, who so desperately need support and rehabilitation."

The lawsuit argues that Rebertus' "actions here are not neutral or generally applicable," stating that it directly targets Schmitt's religious beliefs. Schmitt is asking the court to order the defendants to reinstate the program. 

The filing cites the Supreme Court's 2021 ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, where the high court unanimously held that the Philadelphia city government's refusal to work with a Catholic foster agency that doesn't place children in the homes of same-sex couples violated the First Amendment.

"Schmitt believes that through repentance and rehabilitation, any person, including those imprisoned for crimes committed, can live physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally healthy lives through the healing power of Christ, enabling successful assimilation back into their communities, leading to a stable, productive, God-honoring life that provides a mutual benefit to the individuals who have completed the program and the communities in which they live," the lawsuit stated. 

A DOC spokesperson told media that it doesn't comment on pending litigation. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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