Court: Iowa Can't Fund Prison Ministry

Inmates study the Bible as part of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at Iowa's Newton prison. A court ruling restricts public funding for the program.
Inmates study the Bible as part of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at Iowa's Newton prison. A court ruling restricts public funding for the program. (2002 Photo By Steve Pope -- Associated Press)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A federal appeals court said yesterday that the state of Iowa violated the U.S. and Iowa constitutions by funding an evangelical prison ministry to rehabilitate inmates and not providing a similar secular program for prisoners.

It was not immediately clear how the ruling, which came from a three-judge panel that included retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, might affect the millions of dollars that come from the White House's faith-based office to public programs around the country. Both sides in the dispute involving Newton Correctional Facility found something to cheer about in the appellate court's ruling, and both said they are unlikely to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

"In terms of the constitutional issues, we had a smashing victory today," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which had sued to stop the program run by the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship ministries, run by former Watergate figure Charles W. Colson. The effort is aimed at rehabilitating prisoners through "a heavy emphasis on Christ and the Bible," according to program materials quoted in the decision.

"This is an enormously important decision insofar as it clearly limits government promotion of religion in prisons and, I think, by extension in other public settings," Lynn said.

In determining that the program is unconstitutional, the panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit emphasized that inmates have "no genuine and independent private choice," if they want to receive rehabilitation services from programs other than the one run by Prison Fellowship.

But the decision also struck down the lower court's requirement that Prison Fellowship repay $1.5 million it received for running the program at Newton from 1999 until recent months. The prison and the state acted "in good faith," the judges wrote, disagreeing with U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt, who wrote in 2006 that Prison Fellowship and the state knew what they were doing was illegal.

Pratt also did not consider testimony from state prison officials who said "that the program was beneficial," the panel wrote. "In shaping equitable relief, a court should consider the views of prison administrators."

Supporters of Prison Fellowship and other faith-based programs were concerned that if the court made the group pay such a large sum, it would scare away similar organizations seeking public money. As a result of the suit, the group uses only private funds in the nine prisons where it operates, so yesterday's decision will not stop any of its current programs.

"The court today essentially said that if you properly design it, you could have a system of true private choice that would have vouchers for prisoners," said Eric C. Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund, a firm that was part of Prison Fellowship's legal team.

Rassbach conceded that while his clients were relieved that they didn't have to repay the state, "they were hoping for a better ruling."

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