The state Department of Human Services has pleaded, argued and finally gone to court, but the Calvary Boys' Ranch which provides residential care for boys with discipline problems has steadfastly refused for seven years to obtain the state license that would make it legal.
The issue, boomed the Rev. Jerry McDonald, is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
The issue, said a spokeswoman for the DHS, is a state law: Title 10, Section 405, which says, "No child care facility may be operated or maintained after June 30, 1964, unless licensed by the Department (of Human Services). ..."
The separation-of-church-and-state controversy should culminate Oct. 21, when McDonald's case comes to trial in the McAlester courtroom of District Judge Robert Layden.
"Anytime you take a license, you come under who you are taking a license from," McDonald said. "The church, in my opinion, can't come under anybody.
"It's our belief that God started human government and we believe in it. But he also started the church, and that's two heads. Anytime you put two heads together, you have a two-headed monster," the minister said.
"It would never work. It's two powers," he said.
For three legislative sessions, lawmakers have introduced bills that would exempt religious child-care centers from the law. And for three sessions, the bills either have been vetoed or killed.
"It's very important every facility have a license. The purpose of the law is to protect children," said Prins Anderson, licensing supervisor of DHS's division of children and youth services.
"I don't think you should be able to choose the laws you obey and disobey. He (McDonald) complies with other laws in the state. No 1: He drives a car.
"We will in no way infringe on their religious rights. We don't tell them what kind of religious program to have, ... what they can or can't teach," said Ms. Anderson, herself a member of St. James Baptist Church in Spencer.
Both sides McDonald and his Cleveland, Ohio, lawyers and the Department of Human Services and Pittsburg County district attorney's office have vowed to fight to the end, until the issue reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.
During its seven years of illegal operation, the boys' ranch has grown to house 34 "rough" boys or boys "with sticky fingers," ranging in age from 11 to 18, McDonald said.
And his ranch's program has swelled in popularity until, McDonald said, he is forced to turn down an average of three prospective male dwellers a day.
Ms. Anderson said last week that she had never seen McDonald's boys' ranch, though other DHS workers have been given tours of the facilities.
The standards of the ranch are not at issue; the lack of license is, she said.
Anyway, McDonald said, he doesn't doubt he could meet state standards.
The minister, who describes himself as an independent Baptist, said he even built the boy's dormitory in 1982 to meet state regulations.
Each boy has one bunk bed, one quilt, one trunk and one neatly framed Bible verse in a required 50 feet of dorm space that is clean, crisp and devoid of any individuality.
McDonald also easily meets the state's requirements for staff-child ratio, operating with 12 staff members for the 34 residents.
Indeed, the center operated unnoticed under the very nose of DHS inpsectors for some time.
In 1979, two years after the ranch began caring for "rough" boys, the DHS finally noticed its operation in this tiny town of 279 people on the shores of Lake Eufaula.