Lawsuit: Minnesota DOC canceled Christian rehab program for conflicting with DEI

According to the lawsuit, officials said the program “directly conflicts with the diversity, equity, and inclusivity values of the DOC."

The voluntary program, called "Quest for Authentic Manhood," was available to inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility–St. Cloud. (Minnesota Department of Corrections)

A federal lawsuit filed Monday argues that the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) violated the First Amendment when it abruptly canceled a Christian rehab program.

The voluntary program, called “Quest for Authentic Manhood,” was available to inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility–St. Cloud thanks to Anthony Schmitt, who taught the program over the course of a decade until it was canceled in 2023.

According to the lawsuit, DOC assistant commissioner Jolene Rebertus informed Schmitt via email 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.’”

“Quest teaches participants about manhood through a lens of discrimination, exclusivity, gender biases and stereotypes that not only contradict the DOC’s mission of providing transformational programming, but can be hurtful to participants, their families, and victims,” Rebertus said in her email, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the cancellation of the “Quest for Authentic Manhood” program violated Schmitt’s constitutional rights and draws parallels to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court unanimously held that Philadelphia’s refusal to refer foster parents to a Catholic agency violated the First Amendment.

The Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) and True North Legal, who are representing Schmitt, allege in their complaint that the DOC’s actions constitute religious discrimination.

The program, which was entirely voluntary, had been operating for over a decade and was aimed at instilling principles of “authentic manhood” based on Christian teachings. With over a thousand inmates completing the program, it was lauded for fostering many successful transitions from the correctional facility into the community, a press release from UMLC explained.

“Schmitt still wants to teach the class. But in July 2023, he was abruptly forbidden from doing so by Defendants because of his religious beliefs and the religious beliefs expressed in Quest. This violated and continues to violate Schmitt’s constitutional rights,” the lawsuit says.

Schmitt strongly disputes the DOC’s portrayal of his perspectives as discriminatory or biased, underscoring the program’s positive influence on inmates instead, UMLC said.

The lawsuit contends that Rebertus’ actions are “not neutral or generally applicable, directly targeting Schmitt’s and the inmates’ religious beliefs.”

UMLC and True North Legal are seeking a declaration that the DOC’s actions violated Schmitt’s rights under the federal and Minnesota constitutions and want the program to be reinstated.

“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.”

Schmitt said that the DOC’s decision was shocking to him.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The DOC told Alpha News that they are unable to comment on pending litigation.


Hayley Feland

Hayley Feland previously worked as a journalist with The Minnesota Sun, The Wisconsin Daily Star, and The College Fix. She is a Minnesota native with a passion for politics and journalism.