Culture Wars

Tracking new Florida child welfare chief Jerry Regier's past has led to some pretty disturbing things: radical Christian groups, papers on parental discipline that condone bruises and welts, and a drive to give tax dollars to churches.

Now, welcome to the prayer closet.

Inside a converted 300-room hotel, the prayer closet is a little room where kids are taken when they disobey staff at the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC). Once locked inside, the misbehaving youths are forced to sit and pray to Jesus, sometimes for days at a time. Some juvenile ITC residents have said the evangelical Christian teens and young adults who staffed the center sometimes forbade them from going to the bathroom, forcing them to sit in their own urine for hours. Some have complained of beatings with paddles by untrained staff that left bruises and welts. When not in isolation, the kids are forced to march and chant and pray, with gospel music playing almost constantly.

The juvenile court system in Indianapolis has been sending kids convicted of minor crimes to the ITC for the past decade, but the extremist Christian creep show inside the center was exposed only earlier this year in reports by two Indy TV news stations. Those exposés, one of them titled "Dark Secrets," prompted a state investigation.

But don't expect any of that to stop Regier from trying to bring something like the Indianapolis program to the Sunshine State. The new Department of Children and Families chief has close ties to the man behind the ITC, a radical minister named Bill Gothard.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Regier last month, is also a long-time Gothard supporter. Bush has no evident ties to the ITC, but he implemented Gothard's controversial character education program, Character First!, at his charter school in Liberty City. The governor also publicly encouraged the Palm Beach County School Board to approve Character First!, which is also listed as a model program in state law.

And Gothard has ties to the governor's brother, George W. Bush. The president appointed Stephen Goldsmith, the archconservative Indianapolis mayor who partnered with Gothard to create the ITC, as a special adviser. Goldsmith recently helped formulate the president's "faith-based initiatives," which give tax dollars to churches.

I've written about Gothard before. Three and a half years ago, I discovered he was behind Character First! and looked into his bizarre ministry ["Little Soldiers of the Culture War," February 18, 1999]. The seat of the 66-year-old Christian guru's power is in Chicago, where he runs a little empire -- reportedly worth $63 million -- called the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Gothard, who has been preaching for decades and claims 2.5 million followers, teaches that Jesus Christ is at the top of a "chain of command" in which authority figures -- teachers, employers, elected officials, and, of course, preachers -- are ordained as leaders by Christ and should be obeyed without question. "God expects you to consider that you are working for Jesus Christ on your job," he instructs his followers in IBLP seminars, which are held around the country.

In Gothard's world view, husbands are dominant over wives (another of Regier's stated beliefs), and wives are forbidden to work outside the home. Marriages must be arranged by fathers, and divorce is not allowed. Rock beats and, oddly enough, chords in minor keys are considered a subversion of God's harmony. Television and other forms of popular culture are largely shunned as evil. Gothard even dictates how people should dress and when married couples can and cannot have sex. And, like Regier, Gothard is a big believer in corporal punishment, preaching that the "wrath" of parents leads children to God.

In the early 1990s, Gothard was invited by then-Indianapolis Mayor Goldsmith to open the ITC. Goldsmith made Indianapolis a "City of Character" wherein some of Gothard's teachings have been incorporated into local government and the school system there. The former mayor also ordained that the court system could sentence children to Gothard's care and gave the preacher a publicly owned building -- for a token $1 price -- to run an orphanage in the city. Goldsmith's wife, Margaret, is employed in Indianapolis by Judge James Payne, who uses the bench to send kids to Gothard's center.

When running for the presidency, George W. Bush made Goldsmith his chief domestic policy adviser. He kept Goldsmith on staff after winning the White House. The president and Goldsmith have another mutual friend, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Regier's former boss. In 1996, Keating and Regier welcomed Gothard to Oklahoma City, where the IBLP founded the Character Training Institute.

As head of the Oklahoma Department of Juvenile Justice, Regier spread the Gothard word. When he testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on juvenile justice in 1996, Regier spoke of the need to build a "Wall of Protection" around children so they don't succumb to the streets.