Teen Challenge

Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?

Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?

So the New York Times has produced another story in its Beware the Fine Print series and it's must reading for those concerned about church-state issues.

This one -- "In Religious Arbitration, Scripture Is the Rule of Law" -- does a great job of warning American citizens to be careful before voluntarily signing on the dotted line to do business (or working for) companies and institutions that write "Christian arbitration" clauses into their contracts.

What, that's not the point of the story at all. Sorry about that.

Truth be told, I'm having trouble figuring out the bottom line in this long and ambitious story. Clearly citizens have a right to join voluntary associations. Right? And clearly citizens who sign legal contracts -- of their own free will -- should be expected to honor them. Right? This is true even if these citizens change their minds about the doctrines and commitments that they voluntarily agreed to honor at the time they signed on the bottom line. 

I mean, a legal contract is a contract. I think the Times team, in this story, shows that these kinds of voluntary association contracts -- whether among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists or perhaps even New York Times employees -- can be abused. It's a good thing to warn people to be more careful about fine print. But is that what this story is about? I don't think so. It appears that the Times editors think that putting faith elements in these kinds of voluntary contracts is uniquely evil and dangerous. Really?

Let's look at some passages to see what the Times folks are trying to say. Here's is how things start:

A few months before he took a toxic mix of drugs and died on a stranger’s couch, Nicklaus Ellison wrote a letter to his little sister.
He asked for Jolly Ranchers, Starburst and Silly Bandz bracelets, some of the treats permitted at the substance abuse program he attended in Florida. Then, almost as an aside, Mr. Ellison wrote about how the Christian-run program that was supposed to cure his drug and alcohol problem had instead “de-gayed” him.
“God makes all things new,” Mr. Ellison wrote in bright green ink. “The weirdest thing is how do I come out as straight after all this time?”
To his family and friends, Mr. Ellison’s professed identity change was just one of many clues that something had gone wrong at the program, Teen Challenge, where he had been sent by a judge as an alternative to jail.

In this case, everything hinges on the phrase "had been sent by a judge."

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