Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries/Ashburn v. Mapes

Last modified 2011.09.15

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court
  • Issues Fighting Discrimination, Racial Equality, Religious Minorities, Taxpayer Funding of Religion

On February 12, 2003, we filed suit in the Southern District of Iowa, challenging the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a publicly supported, pervasively religious program in Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility. Inmates who participated in IFI were housed in a separate prison unit, where they were immersed in “24-hour per day Christ-centered Bible-based programming” conducted by IFI employees, who were required by policy to be Christian.

Trial was held between late October and early December 2005. On June 2, 2006, the district court held that the program violated the Establishment Clause, expelled the program from the prison, and directed IFI to repay the Department of Corrections the $1.5 million that it had been paid by the State.

Defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in June 2006. Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser argued the appeal in February 2007 before a panel that included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

In December 2007, the Eighth Circuit largely upheld the district court’s decision in our favor. The court held that Iowa’s involvement with IFI violated the Establishment Clause by supporting the indoctrination of inmates and IFI’s discrimination against non-Christian inmates. The court also held that, while IFI had to return funds it received from Iowa after the district court issued its decision, it could not be compelled to return funds it had received earlier.

In January 2008, the Eighth Circuit denied Defendants’ petition for rehearing en banc, which asked the entire Eighth Circuit to review the case. Defendants declined to seek review of the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March 2008, Iowa terminated the IFI program. Shortly thereafter, Defendants asked the district court to dissolve its injunction against future state support of IFI, on the ground that they had complied with the injunction. In May 2008, the district court rejected this request, explaining that Defendants had failed to prove that they would not resume funding IFI if the injunction were to be lifted. The district court stated, however, that it would be willing to consider in November 2009 a renewed request to dissolve the injunction. In September 2008, under the terms of a settlement agreement, Defendants paid us attorneys’ fees for our successful opposition to the dissolution of the injunction.

AU’s Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser published an article about his involvement in the case in the Ave Maria Law Review.  You can read it here.

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