Most inmates at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility live three to a cell and have no privacy, even when they use the toilet. But if they agree to immerse themselves in Bible study and "the transforming love of Jesus Christ," according to two lawsuits filed yesterday, they are given keys to their cell doors, private bathrooms, free phone calls -- even access to big-screen TVs.
The lawsuits, filed by the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, challenge the constitutionality of a prison ministry program that President Bush has promoted as a model for his effort to allow religious groups to compete for public funds to provide social services.
Bush helped bring the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, run by evangelist Charles Colson's Virginia-based Prison Fellowship, to the Texas prison system when he was governor. During his presidential campaign, he cited it as the kind of faith-based program he wants to see spread across the country.
Given the program's high profile as well as the constitutional issues involved, the lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa may be a key test of how far states can go in allowing religious indoctrination in public facilities.
"The InnerChange program contains just about everything that we think is wrong with the president's faith-based initiative, from the use of state funds in pervasively religious instruction to preferential treatment of some religions over others to discrimination in hiring," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.
Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship and a former attorney general of Virginia, said he believes the program is not only constitutional but deeply needed.
Although it is a "distinctly faith-based program from a distinctly Christian perspective," Earley said, "everyone knows that upfront," and participation is voluntary. Moreover, he said, prisoners who have gone through InnerChange's oldest program -- established in Texas in 1997 -- have a repeat offender rate of "only 8 percent, as compared to general recidivism rates of over 50 percent and a control group rate of 20 percent."
InnerChange runs programs that combine Bible study with job training at prisons in Iowa, Texas, Minnesota and Kansas. The lawsuits challenge only the Iowa program. But experts said a ruling against the program could lead to similar challenges in the other states, an appeal to the Supreme Court or both.
To ensure its legal standing to sue, Americans United filed one lawsuit on behalf of Jerry D. Ashburn, 44, who is serving a life sentence for murder, and the second on behalf of families of three other inmates.
According to the suits, about 200 Iowa prisoners pray and memorize Bible verses under the guidance of Christian staff in prison rooms lined with displays of scripture passages. In return, they live in an "honor" unit where they are housed two to a cell, permitted to leave their cells at night and granted many other privileges.
The program is funded, in part, with revenue from phone charges on the general inmate population. Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said, "No state dollars, including telephone monies, are used in the religious component of the program." But the lawsuits contend that it is impossible to separate the religious and secular portions of a program that describes itself as "Christ-centered" 24 hours a day.
The suits also say the privileges given to InnerChange participants amount to incentives to convert to fundamentalist Christianity.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who generally takes a supportive view of faith-based programs, said that if the courts accept the description of the program in the lawsuits, it is likely to be struck down. Even setting aside the issue of state funding, he said, "the offer of various benefits that are unavailable to others is an indirect form of coercion that is clearly impermissible."