Coercive Religion In America's Prisons: Unfair Sentence

A person's beliefs about religion should be irrelevant to the government.

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, whether an American believes in 20 gods or no god is none of the state's concern. The government must never grant preferential treatment on the basis of religious belief. That is a central tenet of American life.

That is also the principle being violated in an Iowa state prison right now. At Newton Correctional Facility, inmates who agree to undergo conversion to fundamentalist Christianity through Charles W. Colson's InnerChange Freedom Initiative get benefits that, behind bars, mean a lot greater safety, better jobs, free phone calls and bathroom privacy, to name a few.

Iowa's adoption of InnerChange is exactly the type of church-state union that would have horrified Jefferson and James Madison. The government is promoting a program that has religious conversion as its core tenet. People who agree to adopt a certain religious outlook get better treatment from the state.

Americans United is challenging InnerChange in federal court. The program's backers have argued that Iowa isn't paying for the religious aspects of InnerChange. This argument collapses when one examines the materials produced by InnerChange materials that make it clear that there are no non-religious aspects of InnerChange. The program, the materials boast, is totally subsumed in fundamentalist Christianity "all day, every day." It is repeatedly described as "biblical" and "Christ-centered."

The InnerChange website makes it clear that conversion to fundamentalist Christianity is required for the program to work. Staffers essentially rate inmates on how religious they are. Those who don't measure up can be removed.

Many Americans support Colson's Prison Fellowship and his ministry to inmates. Those people should fund InnerChange with voluntary contributions. The attempt to pass the buck (or, more appropriately, the collection plate) to the taxpayer amounts to government support, promotion and advocacy of a specific religious view. This idea was anathema to Jefferson and Madison more than 200 years ago. It hasn't improved with age.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the InnerChange situation is that President George W. Bush considers the arrangement a model of "faith-based" social service. Bush established the first InnerChange program when he was governor of Texas, and he touted the scheme during his presidential campaign.

If this administration has its way, it won't be just prisoners who are subjected to proselytism and other faith-based pressures. It will be all Americans who need a little help from their government.

That's utterly unacceptable, and those of us who care about religious freedom must tell our elected officials so.