Prisons And Proselytizing: Baptist Program For Texas Inmates Raises Church-State Questions

I am all for prisoners having the right to worship and access to academic training that helps prevent recidivism, but I’m very wary of a new program in Texas.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to equip prisoners with college degrees in biblical studies so they can later minister other inmates. The state is promoting a four-year program sponsored by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation.

So far, 40 inmates at Darrington Unit in Rosharon have been accepted into the program, which  begins today.

"Part of our core mission is promoting positive change in offender behavior and this collaboration provides that opportunity," said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Houston Chronicle. "The men who complete this four-year program will be a powerful voice to other inmates seeking to get their lives back on track, and will aid us in successfully reintegrating these inmates back into society."

But Livingston is only giving us part of the story.

The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary says on its website that it exists to provide theological education for individuals engaging in Christian ministry. Seminary President Paige Patterson is a long-time Religious Right operative who led a fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, an advocate of the prison program, told the Chronicle there should be no church-state concerns because the program is voluntary and isn’t being funding with taxes.

"We're offering a free college degree to long-serving prisoners who want to become pastors so they can help change cultures of prisons, and anyone who would object to that would have to explain to me why wanting to make our community safer and our prisons safer is a bad idea," Patrick said.

Making our community safer is definitely not a bad idea – but I’m certain there are other ways to go about it than providing one religious group extraordinary access to prisoners.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, supporters of the program are quite clear about its sectarian agenda.

"It will be Christ-centered teaching, biblically based with the goal of moral rehabilitation," said Grove Norwood, board chairman of the Heart of Texas Foundation.

The newspaper also reports that Craig Blaising, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary official, said inmate graduates would have a responsibility to "share the good news, proclaim the good news of Christ.

“We don't call that proselytizing,” he said. “We call that evangelism. We call that ministry."

Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s senior litigation counsel, pointed out to the Chronicle that this program shows government favoritism of one faith over others.

"Imagine the public outcry that would arise if the state were to partner with Muslim institutions and train them to be imams and turn them out to minister Islam to other inmates," Luchenitser said.

Luchenitser also asserted that the Texas program goes beyond chaplaincy programs that are often part of prison life. Those programs serve all faiths and are not permitted to indoctrinate or proselytize on behalf of only one tradition.

But in this case, prisoners will be training to be Baptist clergy while the state gives its full blessing.

It’s quite sad. When a prison finally offers prisoners a chance at higher education, go figure it has to come with religious strings attached.