A few months before he took a toxic mix of drugs and died on a stranger’s couch, Nicklaus Ellison wrote a letter to his little sister.
He asked for Jolly Ranchers, Starburst and Silly Bandz bracelets, some of the treats permitted at the substance abuse program he attended in Florida. Then, almost as an aside, Mr. Ellison wrote about how the Christian-run program that was supposed to cure his drug and alcohol problem had instead “de-gayed” him.
“God makes all things new,” Mr. Ellison wrote in bright green ink. “The weirdest thing is how do I come out as straight after all this time?”
To his family and friends, Mr. Ellison’s professed identity change was just one of many clues that something had gone wrong at the program, Teen Challenge, where he had been sent by a judge as an alternative to jail.
But when his family sued Teen Challenge in 2012 hoping to uncover what had happened, they quickly hit a wall. When he was admitted to the program, at age 20, Mr. Ellison signed a contract that prevented him and his family from taking the Christian group to court.
Instead, his claim had to be resolved through a mediation or arbitration process that would be bound not by state or federal law, but by the Bible. “The Holy Scripture shall be the supreme authority,” the rules of the proceedings state.
For generations, religious tribunals have been used in the United States to settle family disputes and spiritual debates. But through arbitration, religion is being used to sort out secular problems like claims of financial fraud and wrongful death.
Customers who buy bamboo floors from Higuera Hardwoods in Washington State must take any dispute before a Christian arbitrator, according to the company’s website. Carolina Cabin Rentals, which rents high-end vacation properties in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, tells its customers that disputes may be resolved according to biblical principles. The same goes for contestants in a fishing tournament in Hawaii.
Religious arbitration clauses, including the one used by Teen Challenge, have often proved impervious to legal challenges.