Today, the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) and co-counsel True North Legal (TNL) filed a lawsuit challenging Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) officials’ abrupt cancellation of a Christian rehabilitation program at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – St. Cloud. The program, led by plaintiff Anthony Schmitt and his colleagues, has been an instrumental tool in facilitating successful transitions to the community for male prison inmates over the past decade.
The voluntary program, designed to instill principles of authentic manhood as per Christian teachings, saw remarkable success. More than a thousand inmates completed the program, reporting restored families, healed resentments, and transformative experiences. However, in July 2023, Schmitt received an email from DOC Assistant Commissioner and Defendant Jolene Rebertus, announcing the cancellation of the program, citing alleged conflicts with diversity and inclusion values.
Commissioner Rebertus’ email stated that 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.’” Like a substantial number of professing Christians and Catholics in the United States, Schmitt simply 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.
This case draws parallels to Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, where the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that the City of 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.
UMLC and TNL argue that Commissioner Rebertus’ actions are not neutral or generally applicable, directly targeting Schmitt’s and the inmates’ religious beliefs. The lawsuit seeks a declaration that 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,” said UMLC Senior Counsel James Dickey. “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.”
Plaintiff Anthony 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.”