An important legal challenge that will test the boundaries of government involvement in “faith-based” initiatives gets under way in federal district court in Iowa next week.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is suing officials in the Iowa Department of Corrections and Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries to stop state funding of a prison program called InnerChange that is based on evangelical Christianity. The challenge, filed on behalf of inmates and taxpayers from a variety of faith traditions, charges that the arrangement violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The trial before Judge Robert Pratt begins Oct. 24 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Des Moines. It is expected to run through Nov. 8.
“The InnerChange program is essentially a government-funded conversion program,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Prison Fellowship is free to run evangelism programs on its own dime but has no business handing the bill to the taxpayer. This set-up clearly violates the separation of church and state.
“It’s both unconstitutional and morally wrong for the government to pressure inmates to convert to evangelical Christianity as the price of obtaining rehabilitation services,” Lynn continued. “It is in the public interest for inmates to receive the best rehabilitation programs possible, so that they can make a contribution to society when they leave prison. But no American should be strong-armed by the government to adopt a particular religious viewpoint.”
The lawsuit targets use of the InnerChange program at Newton Correctional Facility. The publicly funded program, sponsored by Colson’s ministry, is saturated with an evangelical version of Christianity and hires only evangelical Christians to serve as staff. Americans United argues that the state may not legally sponsor such a sectarian approach.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about ‘faith-based’ initiatives,” Lynn said. “This case is a direct challenge to the very idea that government has the right to use taxpayer funds to pay for religion.”
The Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries case asserts that officials at the Newton facility are giving preferential treatment to inmates who take part in the evangelical Christian program.
Evidence uncovered by Americans United during discovery shows that InnerChange inmates have increased access to treatment classes that boost their chances of being released on parole. They also get better prison jobs, have separate bathrooms and keys to their cells, receive softer discipline for rules violations and even receive pay for being in the program.
The suit also rebuts claims by Prison Fellowship that the program is open to inmates of all faiths. In fact, documents filed in court indicate that the entire program is saturated in evangelical Christianity. The suit notes that InnerChange staffers have used materials that contain critical comments about other religions, including Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The documents also claim that family life classes reflect fundamentalist dogma, including instruction on wives being subservient to their husbands and attacks on homosexuality.
While the program may technically be open to members of all faiths, non-evangelical Christians would, the suit alleges, find the atmosphere hostile. They would also be subjected to constant proselytization efforts.
The suit also noted that InnerChange hires only evangelical Christians willing to sign a statement of faith that reflects conservative Christian views.
Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser is spearheading the litigation and has examined thousands of pages of legal documents and taken and defended over 20 depositions to make the case that InnerChange is promoting religion at taxpayer expense. Americans United attorney Heather Weaver and Iowa civil rights attorney Dean Stowers are joining Luchenitser on the trial team.
“I’m hoping that this will be an open-and-shut case,” said Luchenitser, who will lead the arguments in federal court. “I believe that we will prove beyond all doubt that InnerChange exists primarily to further Evangelical Christianity. It’s wrong to force taxpayers to pay for that.”
In past years, the program was funded by excess fees charged to inmates for telephone calls. The program is currently being funded with funds from taxpayers and from Iowa’s share of the tobacco trust settlement.
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Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.