Pennsylvania County Agrees To Settle AU’s Jail-Ministry Lawsuit

Officials in Bradford County, Pa., have agreed to bar any public funding of religious activities as part of a settlement of a lawsuit challenging a local “faith-based” inmate ministry.

Americans United brought suit against officials in Bradford County in 2005 in cooperation with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the national law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP. AU and its allies charged that Bradford County and other governmental agencies had violated church-state separation by funding The Firm Foundation, a religiously based rehabilitation program at the Bradford County jail.

The Moeller v. Bradford County lawsuit charged that the government’s provision of federal, state, and local funds to The Firm Foundation was unconstitutional because the program proselytized inmates, pressured them to take part in prayer, and hired only Christians as employees. (See “Battling Bias,” April 2005 Church & State.)

The settlement was announced April 3. Under the conditions, county officials have agreed that all of its future contracts will bar an array of unconstitutional activities involving government support of religion.

Under terms of the agreement, Bradford County will prohibit the use of any public funds for the support of any religious activities, including religious instruction, worship and proselytization; bar the use of public money to purchase religious materials or the construction or maintenance of religious buildings; forbid county contractors from pressuring or coercing program beneficiaries to attend or participate in religious activities; prohibit publicly funded programs from discriminating based on religion in providing services; and regularly monitor compliance with these rules by all religiously affiliated contractors.

The situation in Bradford County was brought to public attention by the Brad­ford County Alliance for Demo­cracy, a local citizens’ group.

“I am pleased with this result,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Taxpayers should never be asked to subsidize religious activities or religious discrimination. This settlement ensures that public dollars will be spent to advance public purposes, not private religious goals.”

The settlement does not completely end the legal action. Separate lawsuits against the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and The Firm Foundation are ongoing.

Officials in Bradford County were interested in settling the case because The Firm Foundation was unable to raise private funds to match the public support it had received. When the group’s private funding fell through, it ceased operating the program at the Bradford jail.