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Love in Court

Gay-to-straight ministry and the state go to court.



Last October, DJ Butler ran away from home. His father tracked him down and, instead of taking him home to Georgia, deposited him at Love In Action (LIA), a faith-based program for adolescents struggling with promiscuity or homosexuality.

"The people at LIA saw me get out of the car in handcuffs," Butler said at a press conference Friday. "My counselor at LIA said if you leave I'll call the cops, and they'll come pick you up and take you to a juvenile delinquent center."

While in residence at the program, Butler's father obtained Prozac for him, yet he insists he never saw a doctor. "The counselors kept telling me I needed some kind of pick-me-up," said the 17-year-old. On occasion, Butler says, staff from LIA administered the medication.

It was these types of actions -- dispensing medication and requiring clients to stay on-site -- that ultimately brought LIA to federal court last week.

The program gained national notoriety last summer after a Tennessee teenager posted his fears about the program on his weblog. The media attention in turn incited the state to take a closer look at LIA. "It was a media complaint which drew us to their Web site," said Pamela Hayden Wood from the state attorney general's office, which represented the state at the court appearance.

In late 2005, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (DMHDD) decreed that LIA was a "supportive living facility," and, as such, was dispensing medication and requiring clients to stay on the premises without a proper license. After the state ordered LIA to stop offering these services, the ministry sued, stating that a non-profit, faith-based ministry did not fall under the jurisdiction of DMHDD.

In court last week, however, the state was unwilling to pursue further actions against LIA. "This case is closed. The state does not intend to pursue any action," said Hayden Wood.

Nathan Kellum, LIA's attorney, argued that the state is satisfied because LIA has stopped treating mentally ill patients. However, he argued that by interfering with the faith-based organization, the state had violated LIA's First Amendment rights, as well as due process of law.

"Recently, we had a woman approach LIA," he said. "She wanted to check herself in, but because she was on Prozac, she fell under the auspices of mentally ill, and we could not admit her."

According to Kellum, the number of clients at LIA has fallen drastically. Without a legal or declaratory promise from the state, Kellum argues that LIA cannot carry out full operations.

Judge Bernice Donald, presiding over the hearing, pressed for the state to define its position also, but Hayden Wood remained noncommital, insisting that the case was closed but leaving open the possibility of further action. Donald was unimpressed.

"The state cannot hang the sword of Damocles over their heads," said Donald. "Is there a threat of legal action?"

The judge also refused to issue an injunction preventing the state from taking action against LIA. Speaking on the case's merits, however, she said that it seemed the law was on the side of LIA: "Mr. Kellum argues that LIA is foregoing its fundamental rights to avoid criminal sanctions, and that is not a tolerable situation."

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