Jun 27, 2011

Since Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s first day in office, he has made it clear that he no problems blurring the church-state line.

In January, he all but turned his swearing-in ceremony into a religious revival, and he noted his intention to use religion as a way to help the state face its economic and social problems. It now seems those plans are well on their way.

According to the Kansas City Star, Brownback has thrown his support behind a “faith-based” program intended to make sure parolees don’t go back to prison. Called Out4Life, the approach was developed in 2007 by Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization.

Out4Life doesn’t deny that it proselytizes. Pat Nolan, a vice president with Prison Fellowship, told the newspaper that Out4Life does “give [parolees] the goodness of the gospel,” but he insisted that they don’t have to accept Christ in order to receive help.

Americans United’s Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser told the Star that Brownback is heading into constitutionally dubious territory.

“The states need to provide nonreligious re-entry programming that all inmates can comfortably take part in,” AU’s Luchenitser said.

Luchenitser knows this issue well. When Prison Fellowship took public funds to run an inmate counseling program in Iowa a few years ago, he argued the case that successfully challenged the program. (Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries)

Prisoners should not be pressured by the state to listen to a religious lecture or participate in any religious activities, period. But Brownback doesn’t seem to care much about that constitutional concern and appears to be a on a crusade to impose religion on all Kansans.

Earlier this year, Brownback appointed Rob Siedlecki as secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Siedlecki served as senior counsel with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Task Force on Faith-Based Initiatives during the George W. Bush administration. Like Brownback, he believes state government should use religion as a tool to address societal problems.

Brownback has also replaced other top staff members in the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Several of these positions, which were once nonpartisan, were replaced by partisan employees being moved in from Washington, D.C., and Florida.

The whole worries state officials, who admit to being uneasy with Brownback’s emphasis on “faith-based” solutions.

"I'm all for religion," said Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence). "We have to be very careful with the state imposing that on people."

Brownback should be careful, but that is probably too much to hope for. He is a longtime Religious Right ally and often appeared at far-right events. While serving in the U.S. Senate, he was a resident of the infamous “C Street House” and has always been a vocal foe of church-state separation.

In 2005, he told the Wichita Eagle that courts have “profoundly misinterpreted” the separation of church and state.

That’s where he has it wrong. The courts have simply held that the Constitution requires the government to remain neutral on religion. Brownback has no business pushing his beliefs on Kansans, including prisoners.