Ex-Prison Chaplain In Minn. Settles Case Over Religious Program

A former chaplain at a Minnesota prison for women who says she was fired for being critical of an evangelical Christian program has settled a lawsuit she filed.

Kristine Holmgren, formerly a chaplain at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, will receive a cash settlement of more than $250,000, but the program she criticized – the InnerChange Freedom Initiative – will continue to operate at prisons in the state.

Holmgren, who is a Presbyterian, says she was fired in 2006 after she told her superiors that she had concerns about the InnerChange program. Holmgren charged that the program, which is sponsored by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship, amounted to “establishment and preferential treatment of a religious group over other religious groups.” Holmgren also said that the prisons’ programs lacked religious diversity and were mainly evangelical Christian in character.

Some inmates, Holmgren reported, had complained that the program “engaged in humiliation tactics – they were offensive, they singled out minorities and unmarried women, harassed lesbians and praised the superiority of men.”

The former chaplain said the prison warden warned her to stop complaining about the program but that she refused and was terminated. Prison official say her firing was due to structural changes, but a state appeals court in June of 2010 sided with Holmgren.

Holmgren told the Star-Tribune she wants the program removed from the state’s prisons.

“The money was never an issue for me,” Holmgren said. “I’m an American citizen,…was working for the state of Minnesota, and my constitutional rights were violated when I was told to shut up about something I found to be illegal and questionable and a violation of other people’s rights.”

In 2003, Americans United sued to block tax funding of the InnerChange program at a prison in Iowa. A federal court ruled in AU’s favor, and that decision was upheld on appeal. The program was removed.

Although the InnerChange program still operates at some Minnesota prisons, it is not publicly funded. A prison in Lino Lakes had received some tax funding for InnerChange, said Department of Corrections spokesman John Schadl. But Schadl said that funding was discontinued in 2007.