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Lawsuit challenges cancellation of Christian DOC program

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(The Center Square) – A lawsuit challenges the cancellation of a Christian rehabilitation program at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud.

The Upper Midwest Law Center and co-counsel True North Legal filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiff Anthony Schmitt who founded and ran the voluntary program from 2012-2023.

The lawsuit challenges the cancellation by the Minnesota Department of Corrections designed to instill principles of “authentic manhood per Christian teachings.” More than 1,000 have gone through the program over the past decade.

In July 2023, Schmitt received an email from DOC Assistant Commissioner and Defendant Jolene Rebertus, announcing the program’s cancellation, citing alleged conflicts with diversity and inclusion values.

Rebertus’ email stated the program “directly conflicts with the diversity, equity and inclusivity values of the DOC by defining manhood, or the study of masculinity, through a biblical lens of what a ‘real man looks like.’”

The lawsuit says Schmitt believes what the Bible says about men and women and human sexuality. Schmitt vehemently disagrees with the DOC’s characterization of his views as discriminatory or biased, emphasizing instead the positive impact the program has had on rehabilitation.

The lawsuit compared the case with Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, where the United States Supreme Court unanimously held Philadelphia’s refusal to refer foster parents to a Catholic agency violated the First Amendment. The Court noted that such actions, driven by discrimination against religious beliefs, could not survive strict scrutiny.

The lawsuit claims Rebertus’ actions are not neutral or generally applicable, directly targeting Schmitt’s and the inmates’ religious beliefs.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration these actions violate Schmitt’s rights under the federal and Minnesota constitutions and demands the reinstatement of the program.

“DOC officials canceled Anthony Schmitt’s “Quest for Authentic Manhood” program at the St. Cloud correctional facility because, as they said themselves, it is based on biblical Christianity and does not follow the State’s particular DEI religion,” UMLC Senior Counsel James Dickey said in a statement. “Both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the Constitution forbid this. We are committed to ensuring that Anthony Schmitt can continue to make a positive impact on the lives of those seeking rehabilitation.”

The DOC hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.

Schmitt said: “Through the Quest for Authentic Manhood program at St. Cloud, we have had incredible success over the last decade, with more than 1,000 inmates graduating and moving on to a restored life in the community. 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. 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.”

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