January 2008 Church & State | Editorial

A federal appeals court decision striking down a tax-funded fundamentalist Christian program in an Iowa prison last month was a deeply satisfying victory for Americans United.

The unanimous court – which included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sitting by special designation – ruled that government support for the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at Newton Correctional Facility advances religious indoctrination at state expense.

Americans United brought the litigation against InnerChange, a program operated by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, on behalf of inmates, their families and taxpayers. We did it for a number of reasons.

One factor was simple justice. Inmates taking part in the InnerChange program were receiving preferential treatment, including more secure conditions, private cells, more contact with family members and the most coveted benefit of all to someone behind bars: a faster track to parole. Inmates unwilling to submerge themselves in fundamentalist Christianity were denied these perks. That’s simply not right.

AU had also heard complaints, which were later documented in the court record, of how the program’s staff members scorned inmates of non-fundamentalist faiths. Those prisoners were referred to as “unsaved,” “lost,” “pagan” and “sinful” by InnerChange staff.

The program also required staffers to abide by a fundamentalist statement of faith. Thus, taxpayers were expected to fund a program that would not even consider many of them for employment.

But the main reason we took on the case is this: It is a bedrock principle in American life that religion should pay its own way. No citizen should ever be taxed to pay for the religious indoctrination of another.

This principle should be obvious. There was a time when it was. The American people, through the First Amendment, rejected taxation for religion and any form of compelled support for worship. A faith that relies on government handouts, our people declared, is not free.

Somewhere along the way, we began to lose sight of this important concept. Some religious leaders started arguing that there would be no harm in taking a few dollars for this project or that. Some politicians, eager to win votes and curry favor, began doling out the money.

Along came tax aid to private religious schools disguised as “vouchers.” Along came government grants to religion euphemistically titled a “faith-based” initiative.

Americans United continued to oppose all of it. Our view was, and still is, that religion should pay its own way. If the believers sitting in the pew don’t want to pay for a certain project, perhaps that’s a sign that the project should be abandoned – not that the minister should turn to the state for help.

So when we heard about what was going on at Newton, there was never any doubt what our course of action would be. If it took litigation to correct this abuse, then litigation it would be.

We had no interest in stopping any inmate from engaging in the religion of his choosing. We did not seek to block chaplains and volunteers who visit prisoners. We never opposed inmates having access to a full range of voluntary religious experiences.

Our argument was that Iowa officials could not use public funds to establish what amounted to a fundamentalist church in a state institution and funnel inmates into it, knowing all along that those inmates would be pressured to adopt fundamentalist Christianity and live in a program in which, as InnerChange boasted, “all programming – all day, every day – is Christ-centered.”

A federal judge agreed with us, and now a three-judge appellate panel (all of whom are Republican appointees, we should note) has concurred.

Officials at Prison Fellowship Ministries and their attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty struggled to put a good face on the loss. They implied that all they ever really wanted was the right to fund the Newton program – and others like it – with private money.

That’s a bald-faced lie. What those groups wanted was a steady stream of government funds flowing into their conversion program. They wanted to win souls for their version of Christianity on someone else’s dime. They wanted taxpayer-supported religion – the very evil our First Amendment was designed to stamp out.

Americans United denied them this. We did not do it out of any animosity toward Prison Fellowship. We did it because we have no intention of allowing any organization to trample over basic constitutional principles.

It is especially gratifying that this decision was handed down on Dec. 3, 2007 – roughly 60 years after the founding of Americans United. The first organizational meeting of Americans United took place on Nov. 20, 1947. The organization’s first full year of activity was 1948, and we will continue to mark our anniversary throughout the upcoming months.

The issue of tax funding of religion was pivotal to AU’s founding. We opposed such funding then, and we oppose it now. When we battle it in court, and win, we are upholding not only the genius of our Constitution but the bedrock values that forged our organization.

In this 60th anniversary year of Americans United, we pledge to remain faithful to those values and to do the hard work of upholding them in statehouses, the halls of Congress and our nation’s courtrooms.