Friday afternoon at 5:45 may not be the best time to get word that a judge has just released a major ruling in a case you have been working on for 38 months.
To be fair to the judge, I should note it was 4:45 in Iowa where he was working. Still, the late-day release presented a challenge. Complicating matters was the fact that our chief litigator in the case had already left for the day and was preparing to leave Washington for a well-deserved vacation.
But here was the real problem: When a decision is as well reasoned as that issued by Judge Robert Pratt in our case challenging Iowa’s financing of a Prison Fellowship program called InnerChange that sought to convert people to fundamentalist Christianity, you want to let people know about it. You want The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Associated Press to be able to report the story so people learn about it. But sometimes reporters have plans for Friday nights that might involve something other than figuring out the significance of a 140-page legal opinion.
However, when a judge makes an extraordinarily rigorous ruling stating, “For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions…,”it’s worth it to burn the midnight oil.
This meant tracking down Alex Luchenitser, AU’s senior litigation counsel, and getting him on the phone with Heather Weaver, an AU legal fellow who helped him with the case. It also meant that people in the Legal Department (and even yours truly) had to read the decision, analyze it and help the Communications Department craft a press release. We also had to track down the journalists who have been covering this case for more than three years.
Remarkably, it all came together. Reporters’ deadlines were met, and the next day, stories appeared in The Post, The Times, the Des Moines Register and the Associated Press.
In the days that followed, Prison Fellowship staffers and their supporters began making all sorts of strange, occasionally even apocalyptic, pronouncements about the judge’s ruling. It started when I appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The Big Story” with host John Gibson on Sunday night.
John made a familiar argument: Americans United must want to see more crime, since we worked against this program. He asserted, “I have a feeling here that [if] you are choosing, you would choose recidivists over religionists.”
There are a few problems with this argument. For starters, the only study that purported to show that InnerChange works was quickly debunked. In addition, I favor giving all prisoners access to good programs of job training, family life skills and counseling, whether they are willing to go through a religious program or not
I didn’t have time to get into all of that on the air, but I did say that one answer to meeting the spiritual needs of inmates is for prison administrators to help get volunteer chaplains into prisons instead of creating obstacles to their access.
John responded, “Do you expect church workers to go into prisons? The prisoners have nothing to give them….”
I was taken aback. People, religious and non-religious, do such work for nothing all of the time. They just want to improve society and reach out to someone in need. I pointed out that this was originally the way Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson ran his programs, as a charity, not a government-subsidized program. (I don’t discuss theology on the Fox News Channel so I didn’t even bring up that the Bible says that anyone who visits a person in prison is visiting Christ as well.)
My mention of Colson, however, caused John to react strangely. He accused me of opposing InnerChange because I carry a grudge against late President Richard M. Nixon! It’s true Colson worked for Nixon, but I’m hardly upset about that old history. I simply don’t want the taxpayer to have to pick up the tab for Colson’s evangelism.
A day or two later, this story was all over fundamentalist Christian Web sites and talk radio. Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, told Focus on the Family Radio that if this decision stood, it would remove God from the prisons of America. This staggering assertion that secular institutions can throw deities out by court order has always baffled me when coming from people who see God as omnipresent and all powerful.
Gordon Robertson, filling in for his father Pat, also chatted up Earley on “The 700 Club,” suggesting that Americans United wouldn’t be fighting this program if it was about Confucianism. Wrong again. Over the years, AU has fought government support for Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation and Islam.
In spite of confusing rhetoric from the Religious Right, Judge Pratt’s decision is compellingly logical. It suggests that when governments get too closely involved with aiding prison ministries, financially or logistically (in Iowa, honors prisoners were removed from their spot to make way for the Christian program), they risk being successfully challenged as violating the constitutional rights of others.
In short, there is a place for faith behind bars – but it’s not the taxpayers’ job to pay for someone else’s evangelistic efforts.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.