'Faith-based' bias banned: state can't fund fundamentalist indoctrination at Iowa prison, appeals court rules.

Author:Leaming, Jeremy
 
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In late 2002, Americans United attorney Alex Luchenitser was alerted to a publicly funded "faith-based" operation in an Iowa prison that he found beyond astounding.

That program, called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, was being funded and supported by the state of Iowa; it was aimed at rehabilitating inmates at the Newton Correctional Facility by converting them to fundamentalist Christianity.

Luchenitser, now AU's senior litigation counsel, saw in this set-up an opportunity to challenge and unmask the serious flaws behind the popular political push for "faith-based" social services.

"As I found out more about the InnerChange program, it quickly became clear that this was one of the most egregious violations of the separation of church and state I'd ever seen," said Luchenitser. "And even scarier was that politicians, including the president, had pointed to this type of program in promoting a 'faith-based' funding agenda.

"The public funding of the InnerChange program," he concluded, "was a First Amendment lawsuit waiting to happen."

In early 2003, Americans United went to federal court on behalf of nine Newton inmates, four family members of inmates and several local taxpayers.

A little more than four years after the lawsuit was brought, Americans United has scored a decisive blow against tire "faith-based" funding scheme. On Dec. 3, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found that public funding of InnerChange is a clear violation of the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state.

In a 28-page opinion, the panel-which included retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Judge Duane Benton (appointed by President George W. Bush) and Judge Roger Wollman (a Ronald Reagan appointee)--concluded that the state's "direct aid to InnerChange violated the Establishment clauses of the United Stales and Iowa Constitutions."

Benton, wiring for the 8th Circuit panel, observed, "In the present case, plaintiffs demonstrated ... that the InnerChange program resulted in inmate enrollment in a program dominated by Bible study, Christian classes, religious revivals, and church services."

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told The New York Times that he thought the appeals court decision would hobble the drive for "faith-based" initiatives.

"The decision," he said, "casts a long, deep shadow over faith-based programs in states, and even at the federal level."

In an interview with the Associated Press, Lynn added, "I think this has implications far broader than a prison in a single state because the framework of this decision, the way they reached the conclusion is that government can't pay for these religious social services nor can they ruin over functions of government essentially to religious operations."

The InnerChange program is the creation of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), a fundamentalist Christian group that describes itself as a "ministry focused on the mission of transformation through the grace and power of Jesus Christ."

Said AU's Luchenitser, "Before we filed suit, Prison Fellowship did not try to hide the highly religious nature of InnerChange. Its own Web site and promotional materials made crystal clear what the program was all about --immersing inmates in a fundamentalist form of Christianity around the clock, seven-days-a-week, in order to try to 'cure' them of 'sin.'"

The program, which took nearly $2 million in public funds from 1999 to 2007, has been touted by the Religious Right as an effective and neutral way to reduce recidivism.

Prison Fellowship, a $52.8 million operation headquartered in Virginia, was founded by Charles W. Colson, who was convicted and served time in connection with the Nixon...

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