Three prominent prison chaplain organizations have sided with Americans United’s effort to end a taxpayer-funded evangelical Christian program operating in an Iowa correctional facility.
In a joint friend-of-the-court brief filed in December, the American Correctional Chaplains Association, the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association and Jewish Prisoner Services International urged a federal appeals court to terminate Charles Colson’s “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” at Newton Correctional Facility.
A federal court struck down the program last year, and the case is now on appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
After AU won the Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries case at the district court level, staffers with the Colson group insisted that the ruling was hostile to religion. Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley said that U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt “really ruled [that] Prison Fellowship can’t go into prisons anymore.” Colson insisted that the decision would ban “church services or evangelistic events not only in prisons, but also in hospitals, military bases, or any government facility.”
In fact, AU opposed discriminatory tax funding of the evangelical approach and policies by prison officials that gave preferential treatment to inmates willing to embrace fundamentalism. In court, AU proved conclusively that the Colson program is saturated with a specific religious viewpoint and that its staffers belittled other faiths.
The chaplain groups disagree with the overwrought claims by Prison Fellowship. The organizations make it clear they would not support AU’s position if they believed it would ban religion or religious leaders from prisons. They point out that chaplaincy programs have long been a part of the penal system to serve prisoners’ spiritual needs and note that inmates do not shed their religion once behind bars.
The brief discusses the nature of prison chaplaincy programs, noting that the “cardinal principle of all chaplaincy programs…is that of religious inclusion and nondiscrimination.”
Observes the brief, “For a chaplain or volunteer to impose his or her religious beliefs on an inmate, to press an inmate to participate in religious activities, or to make religious acquiescence a [condition for] receiving services is not only a contravention of [professional] …standards, it is also a violation of the power and trust relationships that exist in such situations.”