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June 3, 2006 - Des Moines Register (IA)

Judge Says Christian Prison Program Must End

InnerChange Freedom Initiative Will Continue At The Correctional Center In Newton During An Appeal

By William Petroski

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A faith-based Iowa prison treatment program in which inmates immerse themselves in evangelical Christianity is unconstitutional and must be shut down, a federal judge said Friday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt of Des Moines, in a 140-page ruling with national implications, said the Innerchange Freedom Initiative at the Newton Correctional Facility violates the First Amendment's clause barring government from the establishment of religion.

Pratt said the Iowa Department of Corrections must close the program within 60 days, and $1.5 million in contract payments must be returned to state officials. However, those orders will be suspended while an appeal is pending, the judge said.

The InnerChange program has operated at the Newton state prison since October 1999, sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries. About 210 inmates spend their days in education, counseling and work, with a heavy emphasis on Bible teachings.

Prison Fellowship contended the program was voluntary and it had the secular benefits of improving inmate behavior, reducing recidivism and protecting public safety.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, praised the decision. His organization, based in Washington, D.C., had sued on behalf of some inmates and Iowa taxpayers, contending the program unconstitutionally represents a merger of state and religion.

"We are absolutely delighted that the court found significant constitutional defects in a government-funded prison program that involves religious proselytizing or religious evangelism," Lynn said Friday. "If the reasoning in this case is followed elsewhere, and I suspect that it will be, it will pose an enormous challenge to faith-based programs at the state and federal level in many kinds of institutions."

The case has received national media attention as a test of President Bush's push for faith-based government services, ranging from social service agencies to after-school child care. Similar programs are sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries at prisons in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas and Arkansas.

Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, president and chief executive of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said his organization will file an appeal next week with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

The InnerChange program will continue at Newton while the appeal is pending, he added.

"I think it is a shame that the court has ruled against one of the few programs that have been demonstrated to offer real hope for stemming the tide of habitual crime," Earley said. "At the same time, the decision today, while disappointing, illuminates the course that has to be taken to safeguard religious liberty; in this case, the religious liberty of inmates and their opportunity to choose to transform their lives by their faith-based choice."

The Iowa attorney general's office, which defended state prison officials during the 14-day trial in Des Moines late last year, will be reviewing the decision over the next few days, said spokesman Robert Brammer.

Pratt's ruling said that for all practical purposes, the state had "literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions." The Newton program gives InnerChange employees "authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates."

The judge said there are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state money is not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.

The state, through its direct funding of InnerChange, hopes to cure recidivism through state-sponsored prayer and devotion, Pratt added.

"While such spiritual and emotional 'rewiring' may be possible in the life of an individual and lower the risk of committing other crimes, it cannot be permissible to force taxpayers to fund such an enterprise under the Establishment Clause," he wrote.

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