Apr 29, 2005

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today lauded a federal judge's ruling that its lawsuit against a faith-based prison ministry program may proceed to trial.

In 2003, Americans United brought suit in a U.S. District Court in Iowa, arguing that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) was violating the separation of church and state by promoting an evangelical Christian prison ministry program called InnerChange Freedom Initiative.

In its lawsuit, Americans United argued that the program, which receives state funds, indoctrinates participants in religion and that inmates choosing to enter the program receive benefits not provided to those who do not. InnerChange was created and is operated by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt, in a 29-page opinion issued today, wrote that Americans United had produced "voluminous documentation," in arguing "the InnerChange program is so infused with religion that it is impossible to separate its sectarian from nonsectarian functioning." Americans United is representing IDOC inmates, their family members and Iowa taxpayers.

"Government must not be in the business of religious conversion of inmates," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "The whole idea of InnerChange rests on accepting evangelical Christianity as a way to rehabilitation. The set-up in Iowa is a blatant violation of the First Amendment and must be shut down."

Pratt noted in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, that Iowa's corrections department had paid InnerChange $1,111,553.50 "in direct payments" and that the contract with the religious program has "been renewed and extended annually to the present."

AU's lawsuit charges that InnerChange is based solely on evangelical Christianity. The program's materials describe it as "a revolutionary, Christ-centered, values-based pre-release program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation."

Pratt's opinion also ordered "that a trial will be held as soon as feasibly possible on Plaintiffs' claims that IDOC's funding of the InnerChange program violates" the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

"The court's opinion recognizes that we have presented a substantial amount of evidence in support of our claims that the InnerChange program violates the U.S. Constitution," said AU's Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser. "We look forward to proving at trial that the government is supporting religious discrimination and coercion by funding and sponsoring InnerChange."

Americans United 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.