HELENA — The dispute between a ranch for troubled children adopted abroad and the Montana officials who want it either regulated or closed may come down to how a judge defines what a church is.
On one side, Ranch For Kids owner Joyce Sterkel says her boarding school in Eureka near the Canadian border should be free from state oversight because of an exemption in the law for ministries of local churches. She and the head of the Epicenter International Missions Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding in October 2011 making the ranch an "adjunct ministry" of Epicenter.
On the other side, a state Department of Labor and Industry board charges that Sterkel is hiding behind the religious exemption to skirt its fees and regulations. The regulators say Sterkel only entered into the adjunct ministry agreement after the board sent her a cease-and-desist letter for operating without a license.
In the middle are the students, who number between 25 and 30. All were born in other countries and adopted by parents living in the U.S. Many have troubles that make it difficult for them to live at home due to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or behavior issues that stem from trauma or difficult conditions in orphanages.
A Libby judge will be asked Tuesday to decide who is right. Both sides will make arguments asking the court to rule in their favor without going to trial — the one side arguing for religious freedom, the other saying it's all a sham.
A central point in the state's argument is whether the religious organization Sterkel teamed up with is actually a church. Epicenter International Missions Ministry was founded in 2004 by Jeremy Evjene, a ranch employee, and it has no building, no congregation and no ordained clergy.
"The 'local church' is not a church but the evangelical philosophy of a young man with no degree or formal theological training," said Labor and Industry attorney Mary Tapper in a court briefing. "The legislature contemplated the exemption would apply to a program having a bona fide relationship with a church, not a program seeking a loophole to circumvent the board's licensing requirements."
Evjene was first hired at the ranch in 2009 as a construction worker and is now a counselor and youth pastor for the at-risk children who live there. He founded Epicenter International Missions Ministry to work with orphans in India, and he acknowledged in a Sept. 18 court deposition that, "It is not a real church. It is just a ministry."
A particularly disturbing aspect of the case, Tapper said, is that Evjene has baptized students at the ranch and is counseling them when he has no background to do so.
"Evjene, a self-professed pastor with no formal theological, clinical or psychological training, is performing baptisms, conducting Bible studies and church services and counseling the children who have severe emotional and psychological problems," Tapper wrote.
Evjene did not return calls for comment at his home or his mission's affiliated church, the Chapel of Praise.
Sterkel referred comments to ranch manager William Sutley, who defended Evjene and said it is not the state's place to determine what is or is not a legitimate church. The Ranch For Kids is lawfully operating as an adjunct ministry of an existing church, he said.
"I don't believe it is the role of the state to define the tenets of religion. Jesus Christ wasn't ordained nor held certifications in counseling either," Sutley said.
What's more, he added, ranch officials are answerable to the parents who send their children there, not to the state. The state board is not an authority on the mental health issues their children face, so it should not be in authority, he said.
"It is not the legitimacy of our ministry that should be on trial, but the criminality of the state that should be in question," Sutley said. "The Ranch for Kids is not in business to serve the concerns of the state. The state exists to serve our needs. In exchange for thousands of dollars per year, they have not provided service of any value to our program, but have actually hindered the valuable work that we do."
The ranch provides the children a structured environment in the mountains and aims to help them develop the skills to live with their families and in society. Many of the parents who have sent their children to the Ranch For Kids praise it and Sterkel for providing a service that few others can.
Sterkel said in her Sept. 18 deposition that the parents had been informed of the ranch's new religious affiliation and they were fine with it. The exception was a California couple who said in an affidavit they only learned about the ministry through an Associated Press story and they did not agree with the evangelical teachings.
"If we had known, we would not have agreed to enroll (their son) at (Ranch For Kids) a second time in 2012," Natalie Firstenberg wrote in the Oct. 10 affidavit.
The children at the ranch come from all over the world, but the biggest nationality represented is Russia. The Ranch For Kids came under an international spotlight last summer when Russian children rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov and human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov showed up at its gates in Eureka.
The Russian officials demanded to check on the adopted children from Russia in Sterkel's care, but nobody came to meet them at the gate and the Russians, along with the film crew they brought along, went away.