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Christian-based Teen Challenge treatment program prompts fight over state funding

Christian conservatives generally support its mission; political and religious liberals tend to look at the agenda with suspicion.

There can be large issues hidden in minuscule parts of huge budget bills.

Currently at the Minnesota Legislature, for example, there’s arm-twisting and backroom dealing surrounding $1.6 million in funding that DFLers in the House and Senate stripped from the $11 billion Human Services bill.

teen challenge logoThat $1.6 million was destined for Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, a Christian-based drug-rehab facility in Minneapolis, with smaller branches in Duluth and Brainerd and plans to open in Rochester.

Without the funding, legislators who support the operation say, Teen Challenge will shrink.

To date, efforts by Republicans to put that money back in the bill have failed in both the House and Senate. But the push is far from over.

Proponents seem to believe that eventually Gov. Mark Dayton and some DFL legislative leaders will allow the funding to re-appear during the tax conference committee hearings.

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Long-running dispute

Issues surrounding public funds and Teen Challenge are not new.

In various ways, they’ve surrounded the 30-year-old organization for more than a decade.  Typically, Christian conservatives have supported its mission; political and religious liberals have tended to look at the agenda with suspicion.

What few argue is that Teen Challenge has shown success, often in cases in which other treatment programs have failed.

Teen Challenge claims to successfully treat 75 percent of its 500 residents, an astounding figure.

Proponents speak enthusiastically of the lives “saved’’  and the “return on investment’’ for the state.

kiffmeyer portrait
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer

“These are wounded, wounded folks,’’ said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer,  R-Big Lake. “This is a unique program where people are actually getting help. Why would we stop supporting it?’’

In a letter to Dayton, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, brought out the cost benefits of Teen Challenge.

“If not given a chance to participate in MN Teen Challenge,’’ Limmer wrote, “many of these residents will either face prison or death. At around $43,000 per person to stay in prison per year, $1.64 million dollars per biennium will only house 19 inmates per years. Our public funds are much better leveraged in successful treatment programs like this, rather than putting this category of offender in our prisons where success is less likely.’’ 

Dibble opposes ‘proselytizing’

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said his concern is that too many in  the GLBT community can be damaged by the program that he says is “proselytizing.’’

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Sen. Scott Dibble

“Despite their claims,’’ Dibble said, “their approach is predicated on a very specific point of view. That’s their right. It stands to reason that to help someone in recovery, they need a strong set of internal values. But they’re asking for public dollars to further their religious beliefs. That’s not right.’’

During a floor debate over an amendment that would have put the funds back in the bill, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, raised similar concerns, saying Jews ordered into treatment by the courts have been denigrated at Teen Challenge.

Public dollars do go into other Christian-based organizations, such  as Lutheran Social Services and  Catholic Charities.

But those organizations are different from Teen Challenge, Dibble says. In his view, those groups aren’t aimed at conversion; they’re reaching out to those in need but not wearing religion on their sleeves.

For all its successes, Teen Challenge’s cure can be totally destructive for gays and lesbians, Dibble said.

He noted, for example, that Janet Boynes, a former lesbian who has announced homosexuality as sinful and like an addiction, was invited to be a speaker at a Teen Challenge event.

“When a gay person is immersed in an environment like that, they can’t help but think there’s something deeply wrong with them,’’ said Dibble. “Some of those [homophobic] values are inseparable from their approach. It does not work for the GLBT person. . . .It’s fine for those at Teen Challenge to believe what they want, but should taxpayers pay for those beliefs?’’

Proponents deny pushing ‘agenda’

Proponents don’t accept Dibble’s view of the Teen Challenge operation.

“It’s Christian-based,’’ Kiffmeyer said. “But it’s open to all. What he’s saying is like saying, ‘I’m drowning, but I’m Jewish and only Jewish people can save me.’  That’s just not the way it works.’’

Richard Scherber, the Teen Challenge executive director,  was not available for comment for this story. But in a letter to Senate Minority Leader David Hann, Scherber denied that his organization pushes a religious agenda or discriminates against those from the GLBT community.

In the letter, he said that Teen Challenge has a very clear non-discrimination policy.

“MnTC’s programs are available to all people regardless of race, color, creed, religion, marital status or sexual orientation,’’ the policy state.

In the letter to Hann, Scherber went beyond expressing the policy regarding “homosexuality.’’ But the explanation may not exactly give comfort to legislative progressives about Teen Challenge’s ability to deal with GLBT issues.

“Because there is a wide range of opinion on homosexuality,’’ Scherber wrote in the letter, “we have intentionally decided that we are not going to address the issue in our programming. Our policy states that homosexuality ‘is outside of the objectives of our mission.’ ’’

Complicating the issue is the fact that courts  offer an either-or proposition to defendents: treatment or prison? Teen Challenge is often offered as the treatment choice.

Teen Challenge becomes the “choice’’ of people who have run out of choices. One of its strengths is that it offers a 12-month, residential treatment program for alcohol and drug addiction. Most programs in the state offer much shorter residential programs.

And the debate continues, although now in the back rooms at the Capitol. The program works, but it’s hard to separate the program from the fundamentalist Christianity that is part of it.

Dibble said he understands “faith-based’’ treatment. Those in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance,  refer to “a Higher Power.’’

“But they [Teen Challenge] substitute Higher Power with Jesus Christ,’’ Dibble said.

Proponents of Teen Challenge say that’s little more than a technicality.

“This program is working — it’s giving people a life,’’ said Kiffmeyer.