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Free at Last

chicago dyke's picture

Thank the Goddess. There is little scarier to me than ex-cons with a mission and taxpayer dollars supporting them:

The day after a federal court struck down a taxpayer-supported evangelical Christian program in an Iowa prison, Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, issued a press statement. He was not pleased.

"The courts took God out of America's schools, now they are on the path to take God out of America's prisons," Earley groused.

Earley's analysis of judicial decisions dealing with religion and public schools was widely off the mark, but he had good reason to be upset about the recent ruling on public funds for inmate indoctrination. His organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, has been sponsoring the Iowa program for three years. If the ruling stands up on appeal, not only will Earley's group have to shut down the program, it will be required to repay the state of Iowa more than $1.5 million in public support it has received during that time.

The June 2 decision in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries was a staggering loss not just for Earley's group but perhaps for key elements of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative as well.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt didn't mince words. Officials at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility had become, he wrote, far too entangled with religion by establishing a special wing for Prison Fellowship's InnerChange program. InnerChange, Pratt declared, is suffused with religion.

"The religion classes are not objective inquiries into the religious life, comparable to an adult study or college course, offered for the sake of discussing and learning universal secular, civic values or truths," Pratt wrote. "They are, instead, overwhelmingly devotional in nature and intended to indoctrinate InnerChange inmates into the Evangelical Christian belief system."

Later in the ruling, Pratt observed, "For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates. There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."

It gets better:

What lies ahead for the Iowa case? Judge Pratt, aware that his decision would be appealed, has temporarily stayed his order. If the ruling is sustained by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Newton officials will have to disband the program. In addition, Prison Fellowship will have to repay the state of Iowa $1,529,182.70. This type of repayment, called "recoupment," is unusual. In this case, Pratt said, it is justified for two reasons: First, as Pratt put it, "the severe nature of the violation." Secondly, the judge noted that InnerChange officials should have known their program was constitutionally suspect. He pointed out, for example, that corrections officials in California provided the group with a detailed memo explaining why that state would not fund the organization, citing constitutional concerns.

Americans United's Lynn hailed the opinion, saying it should stand as a warning to religious leaders tempted to take taxpayer funding.

"There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives," Lynn said. "Tax funds cannot underwrite conversion efforts." Continued Lynn, "Government has no business paying for religious indoctrination and conversion programs in prisons or any other tax-funded institution. Furthermore, church leaders who take faith-based funding may find that they've made an expensive misjudgment if their 'faith-based' funding is challenged."

Score one for the good guys. Way to go, Americans United.

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