'God Pod' Disbanded

Ronald B. Flowers isn't the type of guy likely to end up behind bars. A longtime professor of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, he has never had a brush with the law more serious than a parking ticket.

Yet when Flowers learned that corrections officials in his home of Tarrant County, Texas, had established a special fundamentalist Christian jail unit for inmates, he jumped at the chance to join a lawsuit to put a stop to it.

"I thought an important principle was involved," said Flowers, who serves on the Americans United Board of Trustees. "It seemed to me, as we understood the situation in the jail, that the separation of church and state was clearly being violated and the free exercise of some inmates was being violated as well."

Two lower courts upheld the special unit, but on July 28 the Texas Supreme Court unanimously reversed and declared the so-called "God pod" formally known as the "Chaplain's Education Unit" a violation of church-state separation.

The court noted in its Williams v. Lara decision that the unit was saturated with a version of Christianity espoused by Sheriff David Williams and Chaplain Hugh Atwell and that other religions were not only excluded from the program but actually prohibited. Williams and Atwell had argued that participation in the pod was voluntary, but the court found this to be irrelevant.

"[T]he fact that inmates were willing to submit to the instruction offered does not mean that Williams and Atwell did not promote their own personal religious beliefs over other religious teachings, and their official endorsement of the substance of the religious instruction offered in the CEU goes beyond what the [First Amendment] can tolerate," wrote Justice Deborah G. Hankinson for the court.

While Flowers had the right as a taxpayer to challenge the pod, two ex-inmates one a Jehovah's Witness and the other Jewish who had spent time in other parts of the jail also served as plaintiffs. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress, they filed suit in state court to block the program.

"The sheriff had imposed theological standards for the 'God pod' himself," observed Flowers. "The people who were religious but did not qualify for the 'God pod' were not getting the same access to religion. They were simply not getting the same kind of access to their ministries as the others."

The ruling was especially significant since it came from the home state of President George W. Bush, who is ardently pushing "faith-based" social services. Observers noted that the Texas Supreme Court, an elected body, is all Republican and conservative and that Bush appointed several of its members.

The Texas justices did not say that religious programs may not be offered at the jail. Such programs are common in correctional facilities nationwide, and the court recognized their role in aiding in the rehabilitation of some inmates. But, the court noted, Williams and Atwell went too far in using the Tarrant County program to further a specific religious view at taxpayer expense.

County corrections officials launched the CEU in 1992. Inmates taking part had to sign an agreement acknowledging that the pod is "based on orthodox Christian biblical principles." At trial, Williams and Atwell testified that they did not allow program instructors to discuss other religious beliefs, and Williams conceded that the unit was based on his personal definition of orthodox Christianity.

Material distributed by Williams and Atwell at the jail openly criticized other faiths. Plaintiff Michael Huff, a Jehovah's Witness who first complained about the pod in a letter to the ACLU in 1993, noted that some of the "educational" material listed his denomination as a "cult," along with Mormons and Unitarian Universalists. The material also blasted the Roman Catholic practice of a celibate clergy as a "doctrine of the Devil."

Shortly after the court issued its ruling, the county's new sheriff, Dee Anderson, ordered the "God pod" dismantled. Its 63 inmates were assigned to the jail's general population. Even before the court ruling, Tarrant corrections officials had been taking steps to modify the program to include other religions. (Williams lost a reelection bid to Anderson in 2000.)

"We will not be the ones organizing religious activities for the inmates," Chief Deputy Jim Willet told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "And we won't be denying [religion] to those who ask for it and can abide by the rules that are needed to run a jail."