Dec 08, 2003

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to create a "faith-based" prison runs afoul of the Constitution and should be scrapped, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

On Dec. 5, Bush announced that he intends to convert a medium-security, 800-man prison in Bradford County into a facility run along religious lines. The Palm Beach Post reported that inmates in the prison "will receive religion-based classes in everything from parenting to character building to job training."

"This is a clearly unconstitutional scheme," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "A state can no more create a faith-based prison than it could set up faith-based public schools or faith-based police departments."

Lynn noted that Americans United last year filed a lawsuit to block a state-sponsored fundamentalist Christian project operating with public funds at a prison in Iowa. That case, which challenges state support of Charles Colson's InnerChange program, is pending in federal court.

According to media accounts, the Florida prison, Lawtey Correctional Institution, would be open only to inmates near release who have had clean records for the past 12 months. Current Lawtey inmates who do not qualify for the program or do not want to be in it would be moved to other prisons.

State officials are already in negotiation with religious groups and plan to convert the prison by Dec. 24. Gov. Bush announced the project at a Tampa conference organized by President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Among those in attendance was Attorney General John Ashcroft, a strong advocate of faith-based funding.

AU's Lynn, however, said the program should be dropped.

"Gov. Bush is trying to merge religion and government," Lynn said. "While prison inmates should be free to practice their faith voluntarily, they shouldn't be pressured to do so by the government."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.