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Judge rejects evangelical rehab program

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks - white porcelain ones - were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting days.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress.

One Catholic inmate, Michael Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith. "My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed," he testified at a court hearing last year. "I just didn't feel good about where I was and what was going on."

For Robert Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.

Not all programs in prisons are so narrowly focused. Florida now has three prisons that offer inmates, who must ask to be housed there, more than two dozen offerings ranging from various Christian denominations to Orthodox Judaism to Scientology. But Pratt found that the Newton program - which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of President Bush, who was governor at the time - there were few options and no equivalent programs without religious indoctrination.

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

Nevertheless, the programs are proliferating. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison management company, is expanding its religion-based curriculum and has 22 institutions offering residential programs similar to the one in Iowa. And the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs at least five multifaith programs at its facilities, is preparing to seek bids for a single-faith prison program as well.

Government agencies have been repeatedly cited by judges and government auditors for not doing enough to guard against taxpayer-financed evangelism. But some constitutional lawyers say new federal rules may bar the government from imposing any special requirements for how faith-based programs are audited.

And, typically, the only penalty imposed when constitutional violations are detected is the cancellation of future financing, with no requirement that money improperly used for religious purposes be repaid.

But in a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5-million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

His decision has been appealed by the prison ministry to a federal appeals court and fiercely protested by the attorneys general of nine states and lawyers for a number of groups advocating greater government accommodation of religious groups. The ministry's allies in court include the Bush administration, which argued that the repayment order could derail its efforts to draw more religious groups into taxpayer-financed programs.

Officials of the Iowa program said that any anti-Catholic comments made to inmates did not reflect the program's philosophy and are not condoned by its leadership.

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Iowa decision was unfair to the ministry and reflects an "overreaching" at odds with legal developments that increasingly "show favor to religion in the public square."

Over the last two decades, legislatures, government agencies and the courts have provided religious organizations with a widening range of regulatory and tax exemptions. And in the last decade religious institutions also have been granted access to public money once denied on constitutional grounds.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that public money could be used for religious instruction or indoctrination, but only when the intended beneficiaries made the choice themselves between religious and secular programs - as when parents decide whether to use tuition vouchers at religious schools or secular ones.

But even in today's more accommodating environment, constitutional scholars agree that one line between church and state has remained fairly bright: The government cannot directly finance or support religious evangelism or indoctrination.

Defenders of these initiatives say they are necessary to eliminate long-standing government policies that discriminated against religious groups.

But critics say that argument ignores the fact that giving public money directly to ministries that aim at religious conversion poses constitutional problems that simply do not arise when the money goes elsewhere.

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