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Prison Fellowship becomes latest church-state battleground

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–Despite an impressive record of turning prisoners’ lives around, a faith-based program operated by Prison Fellowship is being challenged in federal court as unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Jerry Ashburn, an inmate at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility about 23 miles east of Des Moines, are suing Virginia-based Prison Fellowship and its Christian rehabilitation program, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative.

The lawsuit alleges that the voluntary program is an excessive entanglement of church and state violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to the Iowa constitution.

Prison Fellowship, which was founded by Watergate figure Chuck Colson, has operated InnerChange at the Newton facility since 1999. Currently, about 220 inmates participate in the values-based program, which Prison Fellowship also operates in Texas, Kansas and Minnesota.

The plaintiffs are opposed to the state’s partial financing of the program. The Iowa legislature has appropriated $310,000 in the current fiscal year for a “value-based treatment program” at the Newton facility.

The case, widely regarding as a challenge to President Bush’s policy for faith-based initiatives, eventually could reach the Supreme Court. Bush has praised the InnerChange program for its effectiveness. A University of Pennsylvania study in 2003 found that the recidivism rate for the first 200 inmates to graduate from the program in Texas was only 8 percent after two years, compared to a secular vocational program serving Texas offenders that had a 23 percent rate. The InnerChange program was started in Texas in April 1997.

The plaintiffs in the Iowa suit claim that the faith-based program is unconstitutional because participants must pass a “religious litmus test” in order to join. But the defendants say no public money is applied to the religious aspects of the program, which also includes education and life skills training.

In opening arguments on Oct. 24, Alex Luchenitser, a lawyer representing Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said prison officials have permitted a religious group “to take over an entire unit and to turn it into an evangelical Christian church.” The only way inmates can get into the faith-based rehabilitation program is “by being subjected to religious indoctrination,” Luchenitser claimed.

However, Mark Earley, president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship, told Baptist Press that the 18- to 24-month pre-release values-based program is constitutional because inmates must choose to become involved.

“The program is voluntary,” Earley said. “It’s open to any inmate who would like to participate. There’s no religious test, so one can be a Christian, one can be a Muslim, one can be Jewish, one can be an atheist. We’ve had Druids and Wiccans participate in the program, so there is no faith test to be involved in the program.”

Nonetheless, InnerChange is centered on the teachings of the Bible, Earley said. “It is a Christian program. It is Christ-centered, so we make that clear up front; we disclose that to everyone,” he said. Prospective participants are required to complete a 30-day orientation, giving them a chance to evaluate the program and withdraw if they don’t like it.

“So people know with eyes open what they are signing up for. They volunteer for the program because they are looking to effect a life’s transformation that will help them not return to prison,” said Earley, who was Virginia’s attorney general from 1997-2001.

“We have 2 million people in prison today in America; 600,000 of them will get out this year and they are returning to prison at a rate of over 50 percent after three years,” Earley said. By contrast, he noted that the recidivism rate for offenders who graduated from the Prison Fellowship program in all four states where it has operated ranges from 8 percent to 11.

Organizers of the program contend that a strong aftercare component helps to keep former inmates from returning to prison. After participants get out, they are paired with a mentor and a local church in their community. The mentor stays in close contact for at least six months, often longer. The ex-offenders are required to stay employed, attend church regularly, do community service and keep in touch with their mentor.

All funding for the InnerChange Initiative in Texas is raised from the private sector. In Iowa, 40 percent of the cost of the program comes from the state; in Kansas, 27 percent of it is state-funded; in Minnesota, 22 percent. Every dollar allotted by those states goes to pay for nonsectarian or nonreligious aspects of the program. Public money, for instance, helps inmates without a high school diploma who join the program earn a high school equivalency certificate, which is a requirement for graduation.

“It’s a holistic program, so we are not only doing faith-based things but we are also doing educational things and vocational things in training as well,” Earley said. “The reason the states are interested in this program is because by reducing the recidivism rate, the rate at which prisoners return to prison, they are promoting public safety. Every time a prisoner is out and commits a crime, it’s another victim.

“And they are also reducing the burden on the taxpayer,” Earley said. “This program, from the state’s point of view, has a secular purpose and that purpose is to keep the public safe. And secondly, to reduce the burden on the taxpayer of this revolving door where criminals are coming out, committing crimes, coming back in and costing the taxpayers some $40,000 a year.”

Under the InnerChange program, Earley said, “Every prisoner still has constitutional freedom when it comes to his faith.

“So, a prisoner can go to chapel or Bible study, that sort of thing. It’s voluntary, they can leave the program any day or they can come into the program. The real practical advantage they get is a changed life. Part of the program is helping to reconcile them to their families and their children.”

The case, which is expected to continue through Nov. 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa Central Division in Des Moines, will be decided by Judge Robert W. Pratt.

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  • James Patterson