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Christian prison program violates First Amendment, organization argues

WASHINGTON (BP)–A leading proponent of strict separation of church and state has charged that a successful Christian prison program violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the state of Iowa’s promotion of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in a state prison in two suits filed in a federal court in the state. Prison Fellowship Ministries operates the InnerChange program.

AU said the program, which also operates in prisons in Kansas, Minnesota and Texas, is a merger of government with religion. In the suits, the Washington-based organization said InnerChange is guilty of religious indoctrination of prisoners, religious discrimination in hiring staff members and favoritism toward inmates who participate.

AU Executive Director Barry Lynn called InnerChange “one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I’ve ever seen. Officials should use public funds to help rehabilitate all prison inmates, not just those who are willing to convert to fundamentalist Christianity.”

Prison Fellowship describes InnerChange as a “revolutionary, Christ-centered, faith-based prison program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation.” It “operates in prisons in cooperation with the state. The state continues to provide food, clothing, shelter and security to the inmates, while IFI staff provides the intensive program,” according to the ministry.

The program has shown evidence of reducing the number of released inmates who return to prison. The Criminal Justice Policy Council in Texas recently released a report that found 8 percent of graduates of InnerChange returned to prison within two years, while 22 percent of those who were eligible for the program but did not participate returned within two years, according to Prison Fellowship.

Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley said the program “in no way violates the establishment clause.” Federal law permits religious organizations to provide social services with state funds, he said.

InnerChange uses state funds only for nonreligious expenses, and inmates who participate in the program do so voluntarily, Earley said.

“It is my hope that these suits will be dismissed quickly,” he said. “InnerChange Freedom Initiative is committed to the transformation of lives of prisoners to the benefit of themselves, their families and, ultimately, society.”

The state’s funding of supportive aspects of the program is unconstitutional, AU charged.

The cases could provide a forecast for how President Bush’s faith-based initiative will stand up in court, AU said. The president has worked to expand government support of religious organizations that provide social services. The InnerChange program began at a Texas prison in 1997 when Bush was the state’s governor.

The suits, which were filed Feb. 12 in the southern district of Iowa, are Ashburn v. Maples, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries.

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