March 2008 Church & State | People & Events

Government must refrain from sponsoring prison programs that promote religious conversion or coercion, Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission last month.

Alex J. Luchenitser, AU senior litigation counsel, successfully led Americans United’s legal challenge to Prison Fellowship’s “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” at an Iowa prison. During his remarks, Luchenitser briefed commission members on the case and outlined the problems with state-sponsored prison proselytism.

InnerChange, Luchenitser said in his Feb. 8 testimony, was pervaded with evangelical Christianity. As a result, he said, prisoners of other faiths had to listen to their religions being criticized and were urged to convert.

Luchenitser cited testimony during the trial from Roman Catholic inmates who testified about their experiences. One man said an InnerChange volunteer insisted a pope would be the Antichrist. Another said he was told to stop reading the Catholic version of the Bible. Other inmates were barred from saying Catholic prayers.

Despite the program’s heavy sectarian emphasis, InnerChange offered benefits like substance-abuse treatment classes, quicker access to parole and more visits with family members. Luchenitser said it is wrong to tie the receipt of such benefits to a religious program.

Luchenitser noted that these programs are spreading to other states.

“The disturbing marriages between religion and state that have occurred in the religious treatment programs described above have not only violated the constitutional rights of inmates and taxpayers, but also threaten the spiritual health of religious institutions and believers,” Luchenitser said. “In the words of James Madison, ‘Religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government.’”

To date, no scientific evidence indicates that these religious programs work, Luchenitser noted. He gave the commission a series of recommendations for safeguarding the religious freedom rights of prisoners.

The commission, an independent, bipartisan agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of civil right violations and reports to Congress, brought together various experts to discuss issues arising out of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, legislation enacted by Congress in 2000 to strengthen protection for religious freedom.