A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that a state-financed evangelical Christian program to help prisoners re-enter civilian life fostered religious indoctrination and violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, was the latest in a series of rulings over the last year to reinforce laws that bar government money from promoting religion, said Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University who is an expert on religion-based initiatives.
“The main thing it does is reaffirm the obligation of government not to fund programs that intermingle secular and religious content,” Tuttle said of the new ruling. “The federal government has come to terms with that over the last year. Even when it has won cases, there hasn’t been a single decision that would allow the government to intertwine secular and religious content.”
The current case was filed more than four years ago by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, an organization affiliated with the Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Iowa Corrections Department. Prison Fellowship Ministries was founded by Charles W. Colson, an ally of President Bush and an influential evangelical who went to prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up in the Nixon administration.
“The decision casts a long, deep shadow over faith-based programs in states, and even at the federal level,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the church-state organization.
The group challenged the InnerChange program at a medium-security prison in Newton, Iowa, that has 104 inmates enrolled in it. In its decision, the appeals court quoted an InnerChange brochure describing the program as a “24-hour-a-day, Christ-centered, biblically based program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the Gospel.”
No one is coerced to join the group, and sentences for prisoners who join are not reduced.
InnerChange Freedom Initiative is the lone so-called transformational program, religious or secular, at the prison. Its participants were allowed better privileges than other inmates, like more family visits and computer access, the appeals panel said. Anyone who wanted to participate had to be willing to accept a “Christian based” program.
As a result, the panel found that the program violated the Constitution, because “the indoctrination and definition criteria had the effect of advancing or endorsing religion.”
A lower court ruled against the program in June 2006. That earlier ruling slowed the momentum of a broad movement to introduce religion-based programs in prisons, Tuttle said.
The appeals court, however, reversed the part of the ruling that would have required the InnerChange program to repay the $1.5 million it had received from Iowa over the years that it has run the program.
Mark L. Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia who is president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said he did not see the ruling as a defeat for his group and that InnerChange did not plan to appeal.