The U.S. Justice Department’s plans to fund single-faith prison ministry programs is constitutionally suspect and should be dropped, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Justice Department has announced it is seeking prison rehabilitation programs for six federal prisons intended to “facilitate personal transformation of the participating inmates through their own spirituality and faith.” The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ solicitation for the programs also asks potential bidders how their approach would “foster growth” in the “spiritual development” of inmates.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin, Americans United argued that the attempt to set up and fund single-faith prison ministry programs violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
“This proposal on its face is plainly unconstitutional,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The federal government cannot fund a program that plays favorites among religions and uses tax dollars to pay for spiritual transformation.
“The administration’s attempt to fund such a blatantly unconstitutional scheme shows just how far adrift it is with its ‘faith-based’ agenda,” Lynn continued. “The plan should be open to all faiths and secular rehabilitation programs or it should be scrapped.”
The Washington Post reported April 29 that a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said $3 million has been appropriated for the religious prison programs.
In a letter to Gonzales and Lappin, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser argued that the federal government’s planned prison program, which is intended to help inmates re-enter society, violates the First Amendment because it promotes religious programs over secular ones, creates a preference for instruction in single-faith over multi-faith programming, appears to favor a specific religious prison ministry program and contains no safeguards to ensure that government funds are not used to support religious activity.
Luchenitser notes in his letter that the federal government’s solicitation for the prison programs appears tailored to InnerChange, a fundamentalist Christian prison ministry program run by Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.
“As the solicitation appears intended to result in contract awards to Prison Fellowship/InnerChange, it violates” the First Amendment’s bar against government favoring one religion over another, asserts the AU letter.
Mark Early, the president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told The Post that his group does offer a single-faith residential prison ministry program and that it is “very interested” in the federal government’s program.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.