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Both sides cheer court’s prison program ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–Both sides of a church-state legal battle found something to celebrate in a federal appeals court’s opinion on a Christian ministry in an Iowa prison.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, ruled Dec. 3 that a federal judge was correct in deciding the state’s support of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative operated by Prison Fellowship violated the bans on government establishment of religion in both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions. The court, however, reversed the part of Judge Robert Pratt’s 2006 decision that ordered Prison Fellowship to shut down the program and return to the state $1.5 million it received to help run it.

Both sides indicated they do not expect to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, The Washington Post reported.

The case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship, involved the state’s funding of a Christian rehabilitation program in a Newton, Iowa, prison. The state funded InnerChange at 30 to 40 percent of its operating costs from 1999 to June 2007.

InnerChange, which seeks to help former inmates “become contributing members of society,” describes itself as “a Christian program, with a heavy emphasis on Christ and the Bible. All the components of the program are based on a biblical worldview.”

The Eighth Circuit’s three-judge panel, which included retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said changing the state aid to a voucher-type program for prisoners beginning in 2005 still resulted in an infringement of the establishment clause. “[T]here was no genuine and independent private choice,” since there was no secular or general prison program to which inmates could direct funds, the court ruled.

Since June, InnerChange has continued to operate at the Newton facility but without state funds.

American United Executive Director Barry Lynn called the ruling “an extremely important decision.”

“Government officials have no business paying for religious indoctrination and awarding special treatment and benefits to those willing to embrace one religious perspective,” he said in a statement.

Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship, in a statement expressed gratitude to the appeals court panel “for refusing to handcuff people of faith who are helping corrections officials turn inmates’ lives around.”

“What was at stake here, at its heart, is public safety,” Early said. “The keys to reducing recidivism and protecting the public from repeat offenses are the very kinds of effective rehabilitation and re-entry services provided by” InnerChange.

Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land told Baptist Press the “decision has more good news than bad news, but it’s not a slam dunk for the good guys.”

The ruling “should be encouraging to those who believe in genuine religious freedom,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The panel “left open the door and, in fact, constructed a road map for ways in which these kinds of alternative prisoner rehabilitation programs could proceed in the future,” he said. “All that would be required, according to the ruling, would be the construction of a ‘genuine and independent private choice'” in addition to Prison Fellowship.

“The best way to alleviate the remaining concerns expressed by the Eighth Circuit appeals panel is to voucherize the prisoner’s opportunity for rehabilitation,” Land said. “In such a program, prisoners who are eligible for rehab would be issued a voucher if they chose not to avail themselves of the state-run, prison-run programs. So prisoners armed with their vouchers could avail themselves of either a Christian rehab program or a Muslim rehab program or a Jewish rehab program or some New Age rehab program. I can think of no more expansive or genuine way to create the ‘genuine and independent private choice’ that the court says such programs require.”

InnerChange runs nine privately funded programs for prisoners in Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas, in addition to Iowa. A University of Pennsylvania study of inmates released from a Texas prison before September 2000 found InnerChange graduates were half as likely as non-participants in the program to be rearrested during the next two years.

Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson, former aide to President Nixon who was converted to Christ before going to prison as a result of Watergate-related charges.