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Religious need not apply, says Oregon

State officials strip state funding from Oregon youth ministry for its hiring practices

71Five Ministry building Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

Religious need not apply, says Oregon

An Oregon youth ministry is challenging state officials after the state Department of Education revoked several of its grants. Youth 71Five Ministries said officials stripped the nonprofit of its funding because of the ministry’s practice of hiring staff and volunteers who agree with its Biblical beliefs.

71Five is a youth mentoring program that serves young people of all religions and backgrounds through a Christ-centered perspective, said Bud Amundsen, executive director of the ministry, which has operated in the Rogue Valley area for 60 years.

Staff members mentor young people who face challenges such as poverty or a family member’s addiction, providing vocational training and recreational activities in group homes, detention centers, and the ministry’s own centers. The ministry hires employees and volunteers who align with 71Five’s mission and beliefs, he added. The nonprofit’s 30 employees and more than 100 volunteers all signed a statement of faith before joining the organization.

Since 2017, 71Five has received multiple grants from the Oregon Department of Education’s Youth Development Division that support the nonprofit’s work. But for the 2023-25 grant cycle, the application required applicants to check a new box that certified that they “do not discriminate” in their hiring practices regarding religion. 71Five checked the box because its religious hiring practices are not discriminatory and legally protected under the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit.

In July, the Department of Education awarded 71Five several grants worth over $400,000. But three months later, a state official notified the nonprofit by email that their grants were being taken back, saying that the nonprofit was disqualified from the grant programs because of its hiring practices.

“When you’re looking at over $400,000 over the next two years pulled from your budget, you get a little bit of a pit in your stomach going, how’s this going to happen?” Amundsen said. “How are we going to keep helping the kids we work with?”

Amundsen said this funding helps pay staff, who recruit and train volunteers who serve the kids. Without the funding, staff will have to prioritize fundraising instead.

Last Wednesday, 71Five attorneys asked a federal court to block state officials from withholding funding. Attorneys made the request in a lawsuit filed by the ministry against state officials earlier this month.

A court order would give 71Five access to the 2023-25 grants until litigation is settled, said Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents 71Five. But Galus said he’s unsure when the judge will rule on the motion.

Out of 81 grants awarded during this 2023-25 cycle, 71Five Ministries was the only recipient that had its grants taken away, according to the motion filed by ADF.

“What the state is doing is taking money, resources, and programs away from kids who need it the most by excluding 71Five,” Galus said. “They have participated in this grant program for years—it [had] been a successful partnership.”

The Department of Education’s actions violate constitutional rights, Galus said. The First Amendment gives religious organizations the right to hire employees that align with their religious beliefs. The state government doesn’t have a right to interfere with this by taking away funding, he said.

The Supreme Court has upheld this right in a handful of recent cases, Galus said—most recently in Carson v. Makin in 2022. There, the court ruled that Maine could not exclude religious schools from a state tuition assistance program. The program supports children attending private schools—including religious schools—in rural areas where no public schools are available.

Maine legislators maneuvered around the ruling by amending state law to exclude religious schools. In 2023, a religious school in Maine challenged the new law, asking a federal court to block its application to the school. Last month, a district court denied the school’s motion. Trial is set for October.

For 71Five, Galus said ADF is fighting to ensure the nonprofit can continue its work without having its rights “trampled on.”

“At the end of the day, we hope for a final win that will secure that right—not just for 71Five but for religious organizations all across the state of Oregon,” Galus added.

Executive director Amundsen said the ministry is currently doing its best to avoid laying off any staff and keep programs going while their case is resolved.

“It’s not that we should have this right, it’s the fact that we do have this right to choose folks that understand and can articulate our mission,” Amundsen said. “That right has been removed and the kids are the ones that in the end suffer and are impacted.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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