Ban on Prison Religious Program Challenged

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

CHICAGO -- Interested inmates at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa receive teaching material that declares: "Criminal behavior is a manifestation of an alienation between the self and God. Acceptance of God and Biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit. Transformation happens through an instantaneous miracle; it then builds the prisoner up with familiarity of the Bible."

Rooted in evangelical Christianity and supported by more than $1.5 million in public funds, the method of the rehabilitation program is clear enough. A key question is its constitutionality. A trio of appellate judges, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is reviewing a lower court's decision that the program violates the separation of church and state.

People on both sides of the dispute say the outcome could influence the future of President Bush's faith-based initiative, which links government and religious institutions in efforts to solve social problems.

"This puts into jeopardy not just faith-based nonprofits in a prison setting," said Mark Earley, president of Virginia-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, whose affiliate, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, runs the Iowa program. "I think you'd see a precipitous drop in the number of faith-based organizations willing to provide services to governments."

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which sued to stop the program, said a courthouse defeat for InnerChange "could well be the death knell for these kinds of programs, whether they're funded by state or federal money."

"Americans," Lynn said, "can't be required to submit to any religious indoctrination to get benefits, whether those people are behind bars or on the outside."

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt sided with Americans United, ruling last year that the Iowa program is "pervasively sectarian." He heard testimony from prisoners of other faiths who felt unwelcome in a program that gives advantages to inmates who accept the intensive religious teachings.

Inmates deemed to be making sufficient spiritual progress live in better conditions than the general population, inhabiting cells with wooden doors and using toilets that afford privacy, a jailhouse rarity. They have more access to relatives and outside visitors and can fulfill prison requirements more quickly.

While in the program, prisoners are expected to pray daily, attend worship services and religious gatherings, and participate in weekly revival meetings. Inmates of other religions are asked "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate," Pratt ruled, citing "a constant tension" with Roman Catholic inmates.

Pratt ordered InnerChange to close its operations and repay $1.5 million to the Iowa government and prisoners whose telephone surcharges helped fund the program. He said he was careful not to pass judgment on the beliefs of the staff or the effectiveness of the religious approach, although he said he had received no credible data on recidivism rates.

His central concern, Pratt wrote, was whether the program violates the Constitutional prohibition on government showing a preference for any religious denomination.

Iowa "hopes to cure recidivism through state-sponsored prayer and devotion," wrote Pratt, 59, a Clinton appointee. "While such spiritual and emotional 'rewiring' may be possible in the life of an individual and lower the risk of committing other crimes, it cannot be permissible to force taxpayers to fund such an enterprise under the Establishment Clause."

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