Appeals Court Hears AU Arguments In Prison Ministry Case

A federal appeals court recently heard oral arguments in Americans United’s challenge to a taxpayer-funded fundamentalist Christian prison program in Iowa.

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser traveled to St. Louis to argue Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case drew national attention when it was announced that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would sit on the three-judge panel hearing the argument. Retired justices sometimes fill in on appellate panels, and O’Connor had agreed to do a stint with the 8th Circuit.

The Washington Post ran a story on the case Feb. 25. The article quoted AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

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

Gordon Allen, a former Iowa attorney general, argued on behalf of the prison ministry alongside Anthony Picarello Jr., an attorney with the conservative Catholic legal group the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Allen and Picarello insisted that the program, called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, is like a private school voucher system and thus can be funded by the state. InnerChange is run by Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, an evangelical organization.

Luchenitser countered by pointing out that the program is rife with sectarian content and often hostile to other religions. Inmates, he said, lack a true choice. He also noted that inmates are pressured to take part in InnerChange since the program offers desirable benefits, including speedier access to parole.

Prior to the argument, Prison Fellowship mounted a full-scale public relations effort to press its point of view. It even enlisted former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who represented Missouri in the Senate, to write an opinion column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In the piece, Ashcroft repeated since-debunked claims that InnerChange sharply reduces recidivism. In a rebuttal column, Americans United’s Lynn disputed that claim and noted that the sectarian nature of InnerChange is beyond debate.

"InnerChange materials trumpet the pervasively religious nature of the program," Lynn observed. "One document entered into the court record stated bluntly, ‘All programming — all day, every day — is Christ-centered.’ The listed goal of a class on the Bible is to ‘introduce the member to the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior’ and to help inmates ‘understand their new identity as a member of the body of Christ.’"

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ruled in Americans United’s favor in 2006. Pratt found InnerChange to be pervasively sectarian and noted that inmates taking part in the program had better living conditions.

Prison Fellowship Ministries insists that the program is open to inmates of all faiths. But AU noted that participants are expected to pray every day and attend frequent worship services that have an evangelical bent.

Pratt found that non-evangelicals are expected "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate."

A decision in the case is expected within a few months.