Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (Creative Commons photo by Lee Harkness/Flikr).
A Christian boarding school from northeast Missouri with a history of defying government intervention filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking to block oversight requirements in a new state law — even after negotiating with legislators to revise the law’s provisions.
CNS International Ministries Inc., a nonprofit which operates various recovery programs for children, men and women under the Heartland umbrella, is challenging a law that went into effect in July implementing background checks for all boarding school employees, mandating unlicensed facilities notify the state of their existence and requiring compliance with various health and safety standards.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last Tuesday, alleges that portions of the new law would “require Heartland to violate settled federal statutory requirements guaranteeing privacy to individuals in drug and alcohol recovery programs.”
Mandating disclosure would discourage those in recovery programs from continuing to participate, the lawsuit alleges, which in turn would jeopardize the program and that background checks of staff would threaten the facilities’ ability to operate.
It also argues the law violates constitutional rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments and religious autonomy under the First Amendment. The lawsuit was first reported Tuesday by The Kansas City Star.
Heather Dolce, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services (DSS), which enforces the new law, declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.
Rep. Rudy Veit, a Wardsville Republican who sponsored the legislation creating the boarding school regulations, said he was surprised to see the lawsuit filed. Especially, he said, after working with Heartland to address their concerns during the legislative session.
“They were part of negotiations and there were changes made at their request,” Veit said. “And basically in reading that — their lawsuit — is that anything that we would try to do to provide any oversight of these types of facilities would be not legal.”
Heartland’s boarding school is unlicensed, as it is operated by a religious organization. Such organizations are permitted to be exempt from licensure under Missouri law, a statute that lawmakers aimed to address this year after The Kansas City Star’s investigation into unlicensed boarding schools with years of allegations of abuse and neglect.
Staff of two unlicensed schools accused of abuse and neglect have recently been charged with various felonies.
“While they may have a perfect facility and may be doing wonderful things,” Veit said of Heartland, “we know from past experience that some of these homes that were totally unregulated did some horrible, bad things.”
Woody Cozad, a registered lobbyist for CNS Corporation who Veit said he worked with on the legislation, said he raised a number of constitutional issues with Veit. But Cozad contends only one of the issues was somewhat addressed.
“So while we negotiated a lot,” Cozad said, “the constitutional issues that I raised in the course of it were never in fact dealt with by any amendments.”
Cozad said while he knew his client was weighing a lawsuit he was unaware it had been filed until contacted by The Independent Tuesday evening.
In addition to the background checks and safety requirements, the new law also requires parents be allowed unencumbered access to see their children and puts in place mechanisms to petition a court and remove children from a facility in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.
Under emergency regulations, unlicensed facilities had until Oct. 12 to comply with notification requirements and Dec. 31 to complete background checks.
As of Oct. 14, DSS received notification forms from 14 agencies, including Heartland, Dolce said. The submitted forms account for 20 operating sites and are still under review for compliance, Dolce said.
Opposition to the law
Heartland has defied government intervention through the courts before.
Heartland Christian Academy was raided by juvenile authorities in 2001 and more than 100 students were removed amid reports of abuse and use of corporal punishment at the school. That raid kicked off a series of lawsuits, one in which the state settled with the school and a subsequent federal lawsuit in which a jury rejected the school’s arguments that the raid violated constitutional rights.
Legislative efforts nearly two decades ago that would have required unlicensed facilities register with the state fizzled out. At the time, some credited the failure to implement reforms to the political influence of millionaire Charlie Sharpe, who founded Heartland and “who is one of the state’s leading political contributors,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2002.
Asked during a House Special Committee on Government Oversight hearing in April why DSS hadn’t made lawmakers aware of issues at unlicensed facilities sooner, former acting DSS Director Jennifer Tidball said it was due to a variety of factors, including not wanting to repeat how Heartland Christian Academy was handled.
Heartland was “the elephant in the room,” Tidball said at the time.
“The reality is, every time that these unlicensed facilities would come up, everyone’s like, ‘Well, we don’t want another Heartland,’” Tidball said during the hearing, later adding: “I think that that’s part of it, is that people were afraid to have another Heartland because it was so high profile.”
Heartland’s previous court challenges were referenced in last week’s lawsuit, in which the school argued government authorities previously failed constitutional tests “and they fail them again today.”
According to the lawsuit, Heartland operates recovery programs for children, men and women “bound with life-controlling addictions, attitudes, and behavioral problems” and it aims to provide “a Jesus-centered, sustainable, intentional community of hope.”
Children in the recovery program — which consists of four boys and one girl — and children of staff and from the community attend a K-12 school, and there is also a two-year college, known as Heartland Christian College.
According to CNS International Ministries Inc’s 2019 990 form, which nonprofits are required to file with the IRS, at the time 82 students were in the K-12 school, and seven of those were part of the residential care program. There were also 25 children in its learning center for kids up to four years old, 22 men in its recovery program and four women.
In state lawmakers’ first hearing on the issue of unlicensed youth residential facilities in November 2020, Cozad and an attorney for CNS International Ministries voiced opposition to state oversight.
“The question we always come down to is, ‘Who’s watching the watchers,” David Melton, the general counsel for CNS International Ministries and Heartland Christian Academy, said at the time. “That’s the problem that we have. What happens when you have somebody that does not have a charitable view of religion.”
Cozad, a lobbyist, attorney and former chairman for the Missouri Republican Party who previously lobbied for CNS Corporation from 2003-2019, said in his experience the facilities “were the victims of an abuse of state power.”
In late February and early March, Cozad sent lawmakers a detailed list of objections to the bill’s proposed language, according to emails obtained through an open records request earlier this year.
In the emails, Cozad referred to “our objections.” It’s unclear who he is referencing.
“We don’t object to passage of a bill, though the state has a great deal of power over unlicensed facilities already and it seems that some of the push for this bill is finger pointing among different agencies and branches of state government,” Cozad wrote to Sen. Sandy Crawford in a March 1 email.
Crawford, R-Buffalo, was one of nine senators to vote against the bill, arguing that she still had reservations about intruding on religious facilities.
Cozad was not registered to lobby for CNS Corporation at the time. He didn’t register to represent the organization until March 29, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.
Cozad said Tuesday he was sharing his own personal concerns regarding the legislation with lawmakers.
“They were in my own behalf — until CNS became concerned enough and then they retained me. But before they ever retained me I had concerns about the bill and anything that was done before I registered as their lobbyist in this matter was on my own behalf,” Cozad said.
In a Feb. 23 email to Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, Cozad detailed changes he believed needed to be made in order to address constitutional issues with the bill.
Cozad raised the possibility of court challenges to provisions and among recommended changes included adjusting standards of “reasonable suspicion” for law enforcement to intervene to “probable cause,” limiting access to custodial parents and ensuring stricter provisions were not being imposed on religious facilities.
“That may well constitute discrimination on the basis of religion,” Cozad wrote.
He also said it was important that department employees enforcing the bill be subject to lawsuits and not “enjoy a qualified immunity.”
Among the stronger due process protections that had been inserted into the bill to appease senators in opposition was a stipulation that when an ex parte order requires a facility to cease operations, that a hearing be held within three business days to determine whether the order will stay in effect.
Veit said he thought he had reached a compromise with opponents, noting that many of the major religious organizations had supported the bill. Don Hinkle, the editor of The Pathway, Missouri Baptist Convention publication, endorsed the bill this session.
“I do not know of a (less) restrictive way to have any supervision over these types of unlicensed facilities that we could possibly have and accomplish anything,” Veit said. “I get emails from victims of these types of homes, and just last week, with their frustrations that we haven’t done enough and relating what the facilities have done to them and how it’s destroyed their lives.”
This story has been updated since it was first published.
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