Improper Pressure: Idaho Inmate Had To Accept Jail Or Jesus

If you’re locked up behind bars in Ada County, Idaho, on a drug charge, your options are to become a Pentecostal Christian or continue to sit in your cell.

I’ve never served time behind bars, but I know that it must be no bowl of cherries.

Most people just want to get out. And when you’re locked up for a drug offense and offered the opportunity for early release if you’ll go to a treatment program, the deal must look pretty sweet.

But what if the “treatment” program is a fundamentalist Christian indoctrination session? And what if successful completion of the program hinges on your willingness to embrace that faith?

Idaho resident Janene Cowles found herself in just that situation in 2006. Convicted of a drug offense, Cowles was told she could serve a year in the Ada County Jail or attend a “discipleship/recovery” program at the Boise Rescue Mission. She chose the program.

Although not a Christian, Cowles knew the program was religious and thought she could get through it. But once she got there, it was just not a good fit. The program was heavily Pentecostal in nature. Cowles was expected to pray, sing hymns, lay hands on the afflicted and even take part in exorcisms to cast out demons. (She was even forced to attend National Day of Prayer activities at the state capitol.)

When Cowles complained she was kicked out – and sent back to jail.

Cowles and another mission resident sued over the matter. Backed by the Intermountain Fair Housing Council, they asserted that the mission had engaged in religious discrimination for tossing her out and had violated the federal Fair Housing Act.

Unfortunately, federal courts have not been receptive to the case. A U.S. district court held that the mission’s ejection of Cowles from its residence is protected under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion, and now an appeals court has agreed.

If the Rescue Mission were a purely privately funded operation with no ties to the state, I would agree. Staff there would have the right to combat addiction in any manner they see fit, including using prayer, anointing and even the casting out of demons.

But it’s obvious this facility has a relationship with the government. Courts are sending inmates there – and not offering non-religious alternatives. If you’re locked up behind bars in Ada County on a drug charge, your options are to become a Pentecostal Christian or continue to sit in your cell. That simply isn’t right.

Americans United filed a friend-the-court brief in this case last year. At that time, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn remarked, “This is just plain wrong. When the courts and religious groups join forces to indoctrinate Americans in a particular faith, they have gone too far. The Constitution does not allow this kind of government-assisted religious coercion.”

Barry’s right. Government officials have no business funneling inmates into a sectarian program like this. This legal challenge, with its unusual fair housing angle, may have failed, but perhaps it’s time to explore one based strictly on the separation of church and state.

Lots of religious groups run drug-treatment programs. (Even the Church of Scientology has one.) Let them have at it – using their own money and resources. The government, however, should never put anyone in a position where their ability to get out of jail is conditioned on religious conversion.

The appellate panel decided not to address this church-state concern in this particular ruling. At some point in the future, however, the courts clearly need to do so.