Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.


Tenn. ‘ex-gay’ facility faces closure deadline
Case could open new church/state debate

The Washington Blade
Sep. 23, 2005

Tennessee officials extended by one week the deadline by which Love in Action — a Christian “ex-gay” organization — must either apply for a license or stop operating two group homes.

The group has until Friday, Sept. 23 to comply.

Love in Action is the largest and oldest program within Exodus International, a network of about 100 ministries focusing on changing the sexual orientation of clients.

Love in Action has been investigated by multiple state agencies over the summer, but the Department of Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities is the first to state that the group is in violation of the law. Tennessee law requires group homes for the mentally ill to be licensed. The Department of Health determined that the organization did not require licensing as an alcohol and drug addiction treatment center because the facility’s counselors provided ministry rather than treatment.

Love in Action has suggested that it should be exempt from state licensing rules because it is a faith-based program.

No state standards

The issue of the relationships between government and faith-based social service organizations has become highly contentious in recent years.

While governor of Texas, George W. Bush, backed legislation that allowed faith-based childcare centers and homes to avoid state licensing and regulation.

Texas Freedom Network, a 23,000-member non-partisan grassroots watchdog group based in Austin conducted a five-year study of the policy and found, “As exempt faith-based drug treatment centers, [such] facilities are not required to have licensed chemical dependency counselors, conduct staff training or criminal background checks, protect client confidentiality rights, adhere to state health and safety standards, or report abuse, neglect, emergencies and medication errors.”

The report continued, “There is no question that eliminating basic health and safety standards made operations easier for a few faith-based programs in Texas, however the lack of minimum standards has threatened the safety of those participating in the program.”

Additionally, the report found that in 1998, a boy filed suit against Dallas Teen Challenge Boys Ranch and Assemblies of God, alleging that a counselor, who was a convicted drug trafficker, sexually molested him and two other boys.

Since the founding, by executive order, of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, increasing amounts of federal money has been made available for religious social service providers. The federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration is now working with the Office of Faith-based Initiatives to administer the Access to Recovery Program. This program distributes vouchers that can be used for treatment by inherently religious services.

Love in Action does not receive federal funds, though it did sign on to a lobbying effort in favor of Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives program, according to a statement signed by Love in Action. Leaders of the ex-gay movement have said they will refuse faith-based initiative grants out of concern that a future administration might attach some regulatory strings.

Among the churches that are listed as supporters of Love in Action are some that are part of a coalition of Memphis religious groups applying for federal funds through the Access to Recovery program.

The relationship between government and religious social service providers is evolving.

Jeffrey Schaler, professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University and editor of Current Psychology, said he believes that, generally, religious providers of mental health supportive living environments should be exempt from state regulation.

Schaler said courts have ruled that therapeutic activities such as 12-step programs and psychotherapy, “look like religions” in that they occupy a central role in a person’s life, offer tenets to guide one’s daily life, and offer discipline where certain rituals are present.

If the state entangles itself in such organizations by requiring people to attend them or by subjecting them to regulation, they risk violating the establishment clause of the Constitution that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” Schaler said.