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Christian boarding school sues over Missouri’s new oversight law

Christian boarding school sues over Missouri’s new oversight law

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Heartland Community Church in Bethel missouri

Screengrab showing Heartland’s campus in Bethel, Missouri, from its “Heartland Homecoming 2021 Online Event” video on YouTube

KANSAS CITY — A Christian boarding school is suing to stop state officials from enforcing new regulations that were put in place following long-running abuse at some unlicensed residential care facilities.

CNS International Ministries, also known as Heartland, filed the lawsuit in federal court last week against the Missouri Department of Social Services.

The legislation that is the focus of the lawsuit provides some government oversight over the state’s boarding schools for the first time. The schools, which had operated under the radar for decades, now must notify the state of their existence, conduct background checks on employees and comply with health and safety inspections.

Gov. Mike Parson signed the measure into law in July after an emotional outcry from lawmakers, child advocates and former students who said the state desperately needed some oversight.

The suit alleges the new law violates numerous constitutional rights, including restricting Heartland from forming an “association of those who share a common commitment to education, addiction recovery and religious faith.” And it says the statute violates the federal constitutional rights of students, their families and faculty and staff.

Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, one of the sponsors of the new law, said he was “surprised and disappointed” at Heartland’s lawsuit. During the legislative process, lawmakers attempted to address all concerns raised by Heartland, Veit said.

“History has shown that we cannot leave these types of institutions totally unregulated with the problems we’ve seen in the recent ones and the abuse the children have endured,” he said. “Heartland may be a perfectly great school, great institution, and may do many good things, but we cannot assure that for every entity. And that’s why we need some oversight.”

Heartland provides full-time residential services to men, women and children with behavioral problems or those who suffer from alcohol or drug dependencies. The facility also operates a school that serves the children of those in its recovery program, as well as its employees’ children.

Heartland has fought regulations in the past, including nearly two decades ago when the school, its founder Charles Sharpe and backers thwarted all legislative attempts to regulate unlicensed boarding schools.

Several lawsuits also were filed over a 2001 raid at the school, which is located in Bethel, a remote area of northeastern Missouri about 170 miles northwest of St. Louis. The raid happened amid reports of spankings and allegations that misbehaving students were forced to stand in hip-deep manure. Sharpe strongly denied the abuse claims, saying unruly kids were made to shovel manure but never stand in it.

Students were allowed to return days after the raid. Five employees were charged, but all were either acquitted or had charges dropped.

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