Lawsuit Opposes Proselytism, 'christians-only' Hiring Policy In Publicly Funded Inmate Program In Pa.

Challenge To Religiously Based Vocational Training Program Tests Constitutionality Of Bush 'Faith-Based' Initiative

A federal lawsuit filed today by two civil liberties groups challenges taxpayer-funded religious instruction and job discrimination in a vocational training program for inmates in Bradford County, Pa.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania say federal funding of the Firm Foundation program at the Bradford County Correctional Facility violates the Constitution by funneling public money to a program that proselytizes and hires only Christians. Over 90 percent of the budget for the program comes from federal, state and local funds.

"Ministries have a right to spread their religious message, but they have no right to pass the collection plate to taxpayers," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Programs with a 'Christians-only' hiring policy should not be eligible for public funds.

"The case will serve as a major test of the Bush administration's 'faith-based' initiative," continued Lynn "I am confident that the federal courts will not allow public funds to pay for programs that offer religious instruction and discriminate on religious grounds in hiring."

President George W. Bush has issued executive orders requiring federal departments to set up "faith-based" offices to direct public moneys to religious groups. The Bush orders also allow these groups to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring, even if the programs in question are funded entirely with federal dollars.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is one of the defendants in the lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice provides some of the funds that underwrite the Pennsylvania program being challenged.

Under the program, inmates at the county jail learn vocational skills and work on construction projects in the community. The program includes prayer, Bible study and religious counseling. It is the only program offering vocational training at the facility.

Firm Foundation imposes religious requirements on employees. A recent want ad for a site manager stipulated that the applicant must be "a believer in Christ and Christian Life today, sharing these ideals when opportunity arises." The ad noted that each work day "will start with a short prayer."

In the Moeller v. Bradford County complaint filed in Harrisburg, Pa., in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Americans United and the ACLU assert that the program coerces inmates to take part in religious activity.

"A significant portion of inmates' time in the program is spent not on the learning of job skills, but on religious discussions, religious lectures and prayer...," reads the complaint. "Program staff proselytize inmates in the specific religious beliefs of the Firm Foundation. Inmates are pressured to take part in prayer."

The complaint also notes, "Virtually all expenses of the Firm Foundation program are paid by federal, state and local government funds." The funding originally came from a U.S. Department of Labor program under the Workforce Investment Act. Now funds are allocated through the U.S. Department of Justice. State and county funds are also involved.

Plaintiffs include Bradford County taxpayers who are members of the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy, a local progressive group.

A former inmate at the jail is also a plaintiff. The ex-inmate, Tim Thurston, took part in the Firm Foundation program because it was the only way for him to get vocational training. Thurston felt pressured to take part in religion during his time in the program.

Americans United staff attorneys working on the Pennsylvania lawsuit include Legal Director Ayesha Khan, Assistant Legal Director Richard Katskee and Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit comes as the House of Representatives in Washington is considering passage of the Job Training Improvement Act (H.R. 27). That measure contains language rolling back civil-rights protections that have existed in programs funded under this legislation since the early 1980s; it would allow religious organizations receiving these funds to discriminate on the basis of religion in employment.

The bill was scheduled for mark-up by the full House Committee on Education and the Workforce Feb. 16 and is expected to reach the House floor early next month. Americans United contends that the language is unconstitutional. The lawsuit in Bradford County is designed to underscore that concept.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania branch of the national civil liberties group based in New York City.

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.